Like the title of this iconic 1966 spaghetti western, every year the General Assembly brings us a plethora of exhilarating and cringe-worthy ideas. We've reach spring break for the 2015 legislative session and it gives us some time to look over the almost 1,300 bills that have been introduced so far. AIANC has identified dozens of bills for tracking and lobbying, but here's a brief look at the ones most architects should be keeping an eye on.
The Good: The bill reinstates the expired state historic tax credit program. It made it through the House with overwhelming support.
The Bad: Unfortunately the credit is not equal to the old program and allows for a stratified credit based on what Tier County the project is in. The residential credit is also lower than the old program.
The Ugly: The Senate has made it quite clear that they have no intention of passing this bill and have sent it to a graveyard committee. Senate leaders have unveiled their own plan that would only authorized credits from local communities but not the state (SB 472).
HB 255 - Building Code Reg Reform - This bill is a Christmas wish list for the North Carolina home building industry.
The Good: Section 2 of the bill sets up a study on the use of alternate means and methods. A fairly common procedure already employed by designers and code officials. The attempt here appears to allow its use more broadly, especially in the face of a code that will now only be updated every 6 years.
Section 4 has two separate elements as it relates to plan review for residential projects. The first, under the good category, would raise the threshold of exemption from a building permit from $5,000 to $15,000. The second is the complete elimination of plan review for residential projects. We'll cover this under "the ugly."
Section 6 of the bill requires written interpretations to be posted on the DOI web site within 3 days. Probably a good policy but we wonder if it goes far enough. What about e-mail and verbal interpretations?
Section 8 requires inspections to be done in a timely manner. Sounds good. Then it goes on to require the inspector to supply the permit holder with a full list of items that fail to meet the requirements of the Residential Code. Still, not a bad idea.
The Bad: There are a couple provisions in this bill that may touch a nerve with AIA members. Just about every architect has been party to perceived over-reach by local building inspectors and have felt powerless to challenge their authority. Section 3 of this bill attempts to swing a big hammer at local inspectors by creating penalties for "willful misconduct, gross negligence or gross incompetence." None of these terms are clearly defined in the bill and leaves the impression that, as the saying goes, "to a hammer everything looks like a nail." Even in the contentious world between builders and regulators the language in this provision of the bill seems rather Draconian and pretty insulting.
The Ugly: Back to Section 3 regarding plan review. This area of the bill would prohibit local building departments from conducting a review of the plans of a residential building project. But it would require building plans to be on site when the inspector comes to the project for construction inspections. So for residential projects there will be no regulatory oversight of building plans, the only time regulators get to comment is in the field following construction. Now we know this may sound like utopia for a lot of designers and certainly for the home builders, but it seems like a long walk off the short pier of risk management. This may fly with the home builders insurance companies, but we suspect the major carriers of A/E insurance won't be too thrilled. At issue for designers in particular is where is that line of demarcation between reviewed and approved plans and the builders set of plans from which the home was actually constructed. If and when a lawsuit requires a forensic analysis to determine fault, the designer usually has a point at which they can say, "here's my approved set of plans." This bill would appear to eliminate that line of distinction for licensed design professionals.
Section 5 is a crafty end around move with regards to influence over the writing and adoption of the Residential Building Code. The section would statutorialy create the Residential Committee within the Building Code Council and give it the sole authority to propose any changes to the Residential Code. Now keep in mind, there is already a Residential Committee of the BCC just as there is a Building Code Committee, an Electrical Code Committee, a Structural Committee, etc... But this bills specifically singles out the Residential Committee and stacks it with only home builder reps to control all residential code adoption. This is actually not a new concept and it's one AIA has worked with the HBA on over the years. The difference in past attempts was both sides always agreed that dividing the greater BCC into separate residential and commercial bodies would allow for each code to be more fairly debated and adopted by industry members with greater knowledge of each building type. AIA is proposing an amendment to this section of the bill that would treat the Building Code Committee exactly same for the commercial side of the code as the HBA has outlined its Residential Committee for the Residential Code.
The Good: Creates a non-reverting special account within State Construction to fund planning of State agency capital improvement projects.
The Bad: Among other provisions not as controversial as these, 1) the project accessing this fund will be planned using a standard, reusable design set by the Department of Administration, 2) the project will minimize the inclusion of design elements that are not related to the core function of the project, 3) the estimated total cost of the project is lower than the total cost of similar facilities or otherwise meets the need of the State agency at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers and 4) the agency agrees not to seek LEED Certification.
The Ugly: See number 1 above.
The Good: Nothing
The Bad: The bill requires all change orders on a K-12 school project to be authorized by the School Board. Anything under $10,000 can be authorized by the district superintendent. In an emergency the Chair of the School Board may authorize.
The Ugly: This is a great way to bring construction to a grinding halt. You'll likely increase your project cost more by delays in processing change orders than the change orders themselves.
The Good: If your political philosophy subscribes to the notion that all debt needs to be authorized by a vote of the people, then this bill is for you.
The Bad: The bill sweeps up most local debt financing decisions into one category that would require a public vote to finance important local infrastructure projects.
The Ugly: It makes little distinction between a local communities existing debt capacity and the needs in a community. It would make passing local building projects even more difficult than it is now.
HB 201 - Zoning Protest Petitions - The bill would eliminate the right of neighboring property owners to protest the proposed re-zoning of another property within their community.
The Good: Some property owners have complained for years that it is too easy for neighbors to file protest petitions against re-zoning, thus eliminating their ability to do what they wish with their own land.
The Bad: This bill eliminates the formal petition requirements and institutes a simple process by which neighbors can file objection letters to the local governing body.
The Ugly: The bill does not appear to have any mechanism whereby the protest letters have to be acted upon by the local governing body.
SB 138 - Professional Engineering Corporations - This bill would exempt professional engineering companies from the requirements of the NC Business Corporation Act.
The Good: Essentially it would allow any corporation to own an engineering firm, regardless of licensure. Has the ability to open the market for expansion due to mergers and acquisition.
The Bad: There's been some concern that if the engineers head down this path then other professional corporations would follow suit.
The Ugly: Given the fact that there are A/E firms within the state, how would this proposal affect architects that have some stake in an A/E firm?
The Good: The bill would allow third party electric power generators such as solar power companies to install and sell directly to a building owner and charge for the power they deliver.
The Bad: Currently the public utility companies in North Carolina have a monopoly on delivering power to building owners. The only way a building owner can use alternative energy sources is by owning the systems themselves.
The Ugly: North Carolina is one of the few remaining states that don't allow for third party power generation.