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Bills would bar cities from enacting individual building codes, move authority to the legislature

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The Idaho Legislature could soon have the final say on setting the state’s building, electrical, plumbing and energy conservation codes. 

Two pieces of legislation introduced by Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, would adopt codes regulating construction into state law and require at least one chamber of the Idaho legislature to approve any amendments recommended by the state’s building code board in order for them to be adopted. This series of changes would also adopt a statewide code on energy conservation in homes, preventing local governments from adopting any requirements for renewable energy or energy efficiency stricter than what the state allows. 

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This bill would impact a number of localities that have made changes to typical International Building Code guidelines. Some Idaho cities have adopted codes related to snow load, while others, like the City of Boise and communities in the Wood River Valley, have passed building codes aimed at energy efficiency and increasing the adoption of renewable technology. For example, HB 614, one of the pieces of legislation Dixon pitched, would roll back Boise’s requirement for new homes to be built with a higher voltage plug for charging vehicles.

Dixon says these changes will help ensure requirements for contractors will be adopted with Idahoans’ interests in mind and reduce the influence of special interest lobbying groups on state regulations. On the other hand, conservation groups, labor unions for contractors, and the Building Safety Professionals of Southwest Idaho say it will slow the adoption of new technology, not allow for different standards in Idaho’s range of weather conditions, and hurt consumers in the long run. 

Going green or going overboard?

The first piece of legislation, HB 660, sets the 2018 Idaho Conservation Energy Code into state law and standardizes what sorts of energy standards builders have to follow when building homes. It passed the House 53-15 on Monday. 

Dixon said allowing localities to add on additional energy efficiency requirements, like specific types of light bulbs, insulated windows or other energy-saving measures, creates a patchwork of regulations that are difficult for builders to navigate. Besides, Dixon doesn’t want the government mandating energy efficiency in homebuilding at all. 

“I don’t think this is something government should be delving into,” he told BoiseDev in an interview. “It should be consumer derived choices. If I want a home that’s more energy-efficient, that’s my decision. It shouldn’t be the government telling me my home has to be more energy efficient.”

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay.

Teri Ottens, a staffer for the Building Safety Professionals of Southwest Idaho, said adopting Dixon’s changes would take Idaho’s building standards “backwards in time.” She argues requiring legislative approval on building codes means Idaho’s requirements might not be the most current and it will make the complex process of approving a code more difficult by adding a layer of politics on top of a lengthy process with industry experts and other stakeholders for approval. 

“It’s going to be buyer beware because they will automatically assume since every other state in the nation requires energy efficiency they will automatically assume that’s what they’re getting in the price of their house and then they’ll get an electric bill for $400 and wonder ‘what the heck,'” Ottens said. 

As a compromise, this legislation will not be applied retroactively to energy efficiency requirements adopted by cities prior to 2018. Dixon said this bill is not expected to roll anything back on energy efficiency implemented by cities before 2018, but would prevent any stricter measures going forward. 

‘We don’t always want to move fast’

Dixon’s other bill, HB 614, does not have the same clause grandfathering in existing city requirements. 

This piece of legislation, which passed the House on Thursday, adopts the 2018 International Building Code, 2018 International Energy Conservation Code, 2017 Electrical Code, 2015 Uniform Plumbing Code, 2018 International Mechanical Code, and the 2018 International Fuel Gas Code into Idaho state law. This means at least one chamber of the Idaho Legislature will have to give a thumbs up on any proposed amendments suggested by the state’s building code board before they are enacted. 

And because any changes adopted by cities beyond these codes aren’t grandfathered in, the City of Boise’s 2020 requirement for new homes to have a plug for an electric vehicle installed would be rolled back.

Boise electric vehicles
An electric car charges at a commercial charging station in downtown Boise. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The AFL-CIO and the Idaho Conservation League testified against the measure on Tuesday, raising concerns that it would slow the adoption of smart technology and take the control over local building codes out of the hands of experts in favor of elected officials. Johnathan Oppenheimer, with ICL, said his group opposes both of Dixon’s bills. 

“The advancements we have made in technology, whether it’s in homes, electrical, automobiles, everything if you just think about how much those systems and technology have improved over the last 20 years and even the last 5 years it’s important that these codes be flexible and responsive to updates in technology,” he told BoiseDev in an interview. “We are very concerned that by putting hurdles in the way of updating these codes it will hold back and punish Idaho consumers for years into the future.”

Dixon doesn’t agree. He said having the legislature approve any changes will prevent industry lobbyists, either from the building industry or groups like ICL or Conservation Voters for Idaho, to have an outsized influence on the process. CVI is also opposed to these pieces of legislation. 

“We don’t always want to move fast,” Dixon said. “A lot of code changes aren’t driven by safety, but they’re driven by the industry. One of the issues that happens is when new code cycles come out there are lobbyists that will lobby for those code changes to be accepted. That’s not the correct way to do that.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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