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Sue Lani Madsen: Focusing the agenda on recovery instead of politics

On Oct. 29 the cost of building a new home in the state of Washington is projected to increase substantially, thanks to the State Building Code Council. Spokane County Commissioner Al French is working to mitigate those costs for the more than 350 families who lost homes in the Oregon Road and Gray fires. It could mean the difference between their full recovery and economic disaster.

“The problem is, these folks were not looking to remodel or build a house. Under the new SBCC rules, there will be additional costs of $30,000 to $35,000 on the low side for building the same house you had a month ago,” French said.

The Building Industry Association of Washington estimates an additional upfront cost of a minimum of $24,070 for a 2,200-square-foot new home for new building and energy codes, plus sales tax and other fees. Added costs may be over $55,000 in wildland-urban interface areas.

Cost-drivers include eliminating natural gas in favor of electric heat pumps, requiring preparation for EV charging, and tighter air leakage requirements. Mostly nice to have but not necessities for health and safety.

French serves on the State Building Code Council representing county governments. He was not in favor of the new rules adopted by the progressive majority on the council. The SBCC is heavily controlled by appointees of the governor, and Gov. Jay Inslee naturally appoints people he expects will follow his extreme climate-focused agenda.

The code changes have already been postponed once. The standard July 1 adoption date for new state rules comes awkwardly in the middle of the construction season, and it’s often a challenge for projects. Architects, engineers and building owners monitor the code cycle and plan accordingly. More than a few building permits have been pulled with not-quite-complete plans in order to beat the July 1 date. But for those who lost homes in August, planning for the increased cost wasn’t an option.

“The event happened under the current code, let them rebuild under the current code,” French said. “These people are not planning, they’re recovering.”

French has a solution. He is bringing forward a resolution for Spokane County to tie the date of future building permits to the post-fire demolition permits. As long as the demolition permit is taken out prior to Oct. 29, the replacement house would be required to meet the codes currently in effect instead of speculating on future codes.

“What we’re trying to do has never been done before,” French said. “Nothing says we can’t, nothing says we can, so trying to figure out how should we proceed.” Attorneys are working the problem and the resolution is expected to come before the Spokane County commissioners before the end of September.

The new energy code is also likely to become mired in legal challenges following the precedent set in a recent California case. The city of Berkeley tried to implement energy policy through local codes and was told to stay in their lane by the courts, ruling that energy policy is set at the federal level.

French expects litigation will also be filed over the Washington energy code. “The problem for homeowners is what code do I adhere to, the existing code or one mired in legal challenges? We’re trying to help people get back to where they were before the fire, to restore not to enhance,” French said.

Joel White, CEO of the Spokane Homebuilders Association, agreed the issue is uncertainty. “There’s another SBCC hearing on Sept. 15, there may be more changes. The SBCC doesn’t factor in housing attainability and cost of housing, and that’s one of the reasons we have a housing crisis.”

For property owners facing a pile of debris, it may be months before they can even begin to think about digging foundations. French said there are only three firms in the county available to provide surveys for asbestos and hazardous materials prior to clearing a site for demolition. It will be months before construction can begin even if winter were not approaching. That makes tying the building permit date to the demolition permit date critical.

“People don’t understand there are still materials in homes that have asbestos in them. Volunteers can’t just go in and clean up a jobsite,” White said. The Spokane Homebuilders website has resources for disaster recovery with detailed advice on the demolition phase and links for the Spokane Regional Clean Air Authority. The SRCAA has waived fees for filing a Notice of Intent prior to demolition. The county has also dropped the demo permit fee from $400 to $25 for people who lost building in the fires.

“These are people in a desperate situation so not the time to push an agenda by the state, these individuals should be protected from these huge increases,” White said. “Especially for those who don’t have quality insurance or have no insurance.”

About his resolution to provide certainty for families facing much uncertainty, French had this to say. “Be nice if the state would step in since they’re imposing the hardship, but if they won’t then the county should.”

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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