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Uniform code lacks uniform response

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//March 4, 2014//

Uniform code lacks uniform response

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//March 4, 2014//

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Milwaukee officials have drafted an ordinance that would require special inspections of construction projects to prevent accidents like one that left a 15-year-old boy dead after a concrete panel fell off the O’Donnell Park parking garage.

But they will not introduce the ordinance until they see what happens to Assembly Bill 782, which would prevent local governments from subjecting commercial buildings and certain government structures to standards that are stricter than the state’s, said Art Dahlberg, commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services. Dahlberg said the bill, if passed, would prevent Milwaukee from requiring special inspections meant to detect structural flaws that are not revealed by normal building inspections.

In the O’Donnell Park case, a 13 ½-ton concrete panel was found to have been improperly attached to a parking structure in the city, allowing the panel to fall and kill Jared Kellner, of Greenfield, on June 24, 2010. Although the building is owned by Milwaukee County, its location in the city subjects it to city building codes, Dahlberg said.

His arguments were made at a Tuesday hearing on AB 782 before the Assembly Committee on State Affairs and Government Operations.

In answer, representatives of the construction industry said the state legislation would prevent builders from having to research local ordinances for every project in an unfamiliar place. John Mielke, president of the Associated Builder and Contractors of Wisconsin, said builders now first submit their plans to the state, but officials at that level often can grant only conditional approvals.

Final approval comes only when local officials have signed off on the design.

“These kinds of things,” Mielke said, “create additional expenses.”

Dahlberg said the special inspections he wants Milwaukee to adopt are part of the International Building Code but were not adopted by Wisconsin when the state took that code as the foundation for its own standards. He said the greater height of buildings in Milwaukee makes the city different from other places in Wisconsin and makes special inspections more necessary for protecting the public’s safety.

Current law lets cities, towns and villages adopt commercial building standards that are stricter than a minimum set by state officials. If AB 782 becomes law, the only exception allowed to the uniform code would be for fire ordinances adopted before May 1, 2013.

In another step meant to allay concerns about losses of local control, the bill would let so-called second-class cities, those with populations between 39,000 and 150,000, adopt variances to the uniform code without state approval. Variances let developers design buildings to a standard that meets the intent of the code without strictly conforming.

Wisconsin law now allows such variances to be passed only by first-class cities, or those with a population of more than 150,000. Those cities could continue to pass variances under AB 782.

Jeff Weigand, legislative liaison for the Department of Safety and Professional Services, said the state now has uniform building codes governing residential and plumbing construction, but other parts of the code establish only minimum standards.

If AB 782 becomes law, revisions to the commercial code would be made following the advice of a building code council made up of building inspectors, contractors, architects, and members of similar trades and professions. The members would be appointed by the governor and would serve three-year terms.

Dahlberg said one way to appease his concerns would be to let local governments petition the council for permission to diverge from the uniform code.

“They should have the ability,” he said, “to do a local ordinance for a local need if the council determines it is a viable need.”


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