By Gloria Lloyd, St. Louis Business Journal
A new study by a realtors’ association released Tuesday concludes that the 17,000 pages of building codes across St. Louis County’s 89 local governments are “inconsistent, outdated and wastefully duplicative,” adding time and costs for developers that could be remediated by a countywide ballot measure that would create consistent codes.
St. Louis Realtors, the association whichconducted the study, said it is the first time thatanyone has compiled a central database of all thebuilding codes in St. Louis County, or attempted tocount the number of commercial and residentialcodes.
The findings were issued by a Consistent Regulations Task Force the association appointed in 2019 when it seemed that a Board of Freeholders would convene to examine governance issues between St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis. Real estate agents have said that the inconsistent regulations affect their ability to sell houses by creating a system where it’s more expensive to do business in certain cities than others, just miles away.
The 89 jurisdictions examined in the study — the county and its 88 municipalities — use at least 42 building codebooks, ranging in publication year from 1995 to 2018, the association said. Together, the codes that were counted had 809 chapters over about 17,000 pages. That’s more than the 9,000-page IRS code, even if you added on lengthy books such as “War and Peace” or the Harry Potter series, the realtors said.
Those findings are conservative, the association said. It was only able to find partialinformation on codebooks for about one third of the local governments, and six cities didnot respond to Sunshine Law requests. The report does not examine codes in other areasof the metropolitan region.
Changing to a consistent commercial code such as the one used by St. Louis County would streamline the process, eliminate duplication and reduce those pages by about80%, to roughly 3,000 pages, the association said.
Katie Berry, the 2022 St. Louis Realtors president, said that the association’s membershipcited code consistency as one of its top concerns in surveys. Even before the associationhad the data, agents had long thought that the varying codes worked against them andtheir clients.
“We have a lot of clients that have run up against inconsistent codes that have made ithard for them, so we said let’s start a conversation — we can’t do it all on our own, norshould we,” Berry said. “We need consistency and reliability, and that would freegovernments from wasting money. We don’t think how things are currently working isgood for businesses or for residents.”
The association has several possible options to address its findings, including going toSt. Louis County voters to seek approval of consistent countywide building codes, Berrysaid. That question was asked once before, in November 1971, when a ballot measure forconsistent codes was rejected by more than 60% of voters.
The organization is reaching out to local officials and stakeholders to discuss building acoalition around consistent building codes, Berry said. The organization said it wants tokeep zoning authority, architectural review, comprehensive planning and occupancypermits and inspections with municipalities because local cities should still control thelook and feel of their communities.
“St. Louis Realtors does not have a specific proposal, and we are open to constructiveideas. But the status quo is wasteful and frustrating to both residents and businesses,”Berry said. “We are leading good-faith conversations about achieving consistent buildingcodes, because our neighbors and businesses across St. Louis County deserveconsistent, equitable access to reliable, updated codes.”
Six areas of codes were studied, starting with the commercial and residential buildingcodes. The study also looked at mechanical, electrical, plumbing and propertymaintenance, but did not look at fire codes, which are typically under the jurisdiction offire districts. The association defined building codes for the purposes of the study ascodes that specify minimum standards for the construction and maintenance ofresidential and commercial structures.
Even if every city used the same code book, employing different inspectors means thatthe code might be interpreted in 88 different ways, the association said. If a proposalwent to voters, St. Louis Realtors said it would have to include wording that cityinspectors who would lose jobs in the switch should receive an automatic job offer fromSt. Louis County, which should give those employees a year to meet the qualifications tokeep the job. The proposal might require startup costs for computers, technology,training and work spaces, and that would be up for discussion, the association said. Butinspections and permits should be funded by the fees charged.
The problem is worse since voters rejected consistent codes in 1971, as the county gained 50,000 more residents and added more codes along the way, the association said. St. Louis Realtors is currently examining how other metropolitan regions handle building codes and will issue a study on that issue in the coming months. The association is inviting municipal leaders or those who had opinions about building codes to contact the association or submit feedback at stlrealtors.org/codes.