Editorial: The very definition of county redundancy is found in 16,786 pages of code

By the Editorial Board St. Louis Post Dispatch

St. Louis County real estate agents have a particular reason to be frustrated with the ridiculous redundancy and overkill represented by 16,786 pages of building and trade codes enforced across the county’s 89 jurisdictions. Whenever a property goes onto the market, code inspections and occupancy permits come into play. Plumbers, electricians and other professionals in the trades have to be summoned for compliance work. All these mountains of duplicative codes put undue burdens on professionals and give the entire region a reputation for inefficiency and backwardness.

The fee schedules for inspections and permits boggles the mind. All these costs figure into the price sellers pay to complete the transfer. So real estate agents see firsthand why this bizarre maze of local rules puts the region at such a business disadvantage compared with jurisdictions that don’t have so many overlapping layers of bureaucracy.

To prepare a newly released report on the problem, St. Louis Realtors filed requests for information from all 89 jurisdictions in the county to examine fee schedules and peruse all local building code books. Not all jurisdictions complied, but at least 42 building codebooks were provided, constituting 809 chapters that professionals in the local trades are supposed to follow if they want to serve across the entire county. (Even more if they want to work in St. Louis city as well.) The full report, with examples of the redundancies, is available as stlrealtors.com.

The nearly 17,000 pages of countywide code is nearly double the 9,000 pages in the Internal Revenue Service’s code.

The point is that it makes no sense for all these jurisdictions to impose their own specific codes when a single, countywide set of codes would streamline the job for all involved, trimming bureaucracy and costs along the way. Unifying code would have no effect on municipalities’ sovereign zoning authority, architectural reviews or comprehensive planning. The look and feel of individual communities wouldn’t change.

And no one proposes to strip municipalities of their autonomy. Even local code inspectors could keep their jobs. But the code they enforced would be the same whether it’s Fenton, Ladue, Ferguson or an unincorporated part of south St. Louis County.

The last time this question was put before county voters was 1971, and it failed. Now the county has 50,000 more residents. The need to reduce confusion and bureaucracy with a uniform, single set of codes has never been greater. The justification for having at least 42 separate code books remains as flimsy as always, based more on territorial jealousy than logic. The only way to demonstrate to the outside world that St. Louis isn’t a fragmented, inefficient region full of excess bureaucracy and business hassles is to eliminate fragmentation and inefficiency wherever possible. Unified building codes are as good a starting point as any.

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