The city of Sandy Springs is drawing a line in the sand in its battle with the state over a bill that would nullify a provision in the city’s building code if passed into law.
In August 2016 Sandy Springs amended its code to require all new buildings more than three stories or 100,000 square feet to be constructed with concrete or other nonflammable material and not wood.
But House Bill 876, which was approved by the House Feb. 22, would make it legal again to use wood there, reverting back to the state’s minimum standards for construction and the Georgia fire code. The bill must be approved by the Senate and then signed by the governor to become law.
“Any building over (three) stories must (adhere to) that (city) code, so people are living in a condition where there’s a potential where they can escape a fire,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said in a news conference at Fire Station 2 regarding the issue. “I think wood is a very safe product when used appropriately, but when you get that high up, you have to build in safety concerns for everybody.”
The news conference was hosted by Build with Strength, a coalition of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. Paul, who said he managed up to 3,000 trees on his family’s farm in Alabama in years past, said the city’s newly amended building code “probably affects less than 5 percent of the total construction done in Sandy Springs.” The former state senator also questioned the constitutionality of HB 876.
“There’s a big kerfuffle over it,” he said. “… Most of our legislators probably haven’t read it. It says local jurisdictions have responsibility over building codes. The legislators can refine it but can’t change it (wholeheartedly). What concerns me about this particular bill is it restricts us the minimum standards.
“It’s not just local control but the ability to match those building codes to the needs and circumstances. The building and living conditions here are different than in Lake City, Georgia. … The Georgia constitution recognizes local control over that.”
District 56 State Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, who represents part of Sandy Springs, said he will be working with other state senators to keep HB 876 from being approved by the Senate or at least amended to remove the minimum standards that would allow wood construction without limitations.
“At the end of the day, we want to make sure anyone who's living or working in any type of structure will be as safe as where I live in,” Albers said.
Sandy Springs Fire Rescue Chief Keith Sanders said if HB 876 is approved, it would put his firefighters at further risk than they are already because of the types of fires they would be fighting. He showed a video of two dollhouses identical in size, with one made with wood and the other with concrete and other flame-retardant materials. The wood structure burned much faster (to view the video, visit http://spr.gs/woodfire).
“I’m concerned about the safety of my personnel. We can do this much safer,” Sanders said. “My fire marshal, Doug Brown, just informed me that he did a review of the city of Sandy Springs. Ninety percent of the wood in Sandy Springs came from Canada and Idaho, not even Georgia. In terms of prices, it’s within 10 percent or less than concrete and steel.”
Steve Skalko, former director of building inspection for Macon-Bibb County, is principal of his own company, Skalko and Associates, in Macon. He said local jurisdictions, not Georgia, should have control over their building codes.
“If you look at building codes and construction over the last 100 years, we had a lot of fires where buildings would burn down because they are built by wood and other combustible materials,” Skalko said. “As building codes evolved, they tried to limit the size of the buildings based on the materials used.”
During a Q&A at the end of the news conference, Lon Sibert, a former firefighter and current professional lumber inspector and president of Renewable Resource Associates Inc., said wood is not as bad as the city makes it out to be. Sibert said he hopes he and wood inspectors and producers can meet with city leaders on the issue in the near future.
“As a citizen of Sandy Springs, I am equally concerned about safety,” he said.
An email sent March 2 to all six co-sponsors of HB 876 seeking comment on the bill was not immediately returned.
In a letter to the editor published in the Neighbor two months after the city approved amending its building code, Robert Glowinski, president and CEO of the Washington-based American Wood Council, said the code was amended “under the guise of building safety, but it had everything to do with limiting development.”
“The American Wood Council sent information to the city addressing what now seems to be surrogate reasons for their action in a process that appears to have been predetermined,” Glowinski said. “The city’s decision lacks any substantive technical basis and can be seen for what it is – simply a means to slow down growth and development.”