Downtown developers may get boost from special building code

Apr. 23, 2014 @ 09:04 AM

In a recent trip to New Bern for an economic development conference, Lenoir city officials learned of a building code that could dramatically lower the cost of renovating historic buildings downtown.

The North Carolina Rehabilitation Code, which went into effect in 2010, allows for old buildings to be refurbished with a set of guidelines less stringent than the state code for new buildings. Owners of downtown Lenoir buildings have complained that the cost of bringing the old buildings into compliance with current codes made their renovation plans impractical.

But a number of cities -- including New Bern, Smithfield and Hickory -- have all used the Rehabilitation Code, and no resolution or ordinance is needed from the city for property owners to use it for their projects, Lenoir Fire Chief Ken Briscoe said.

City Manager Lane Bailey said a meeting is in the works for downtown property owners and city officials to spread the word on the Rehabilitation Code.

But Briscoe cautioned that the code may not cure all of the problems some property owners feel they face, and it wouldn't be clear what safety measures would still be required until a specific building has had an assessment done by an architect and engineer, which also carries its own costs.

And there are safety tradeoffs for using the Rehabilitation Code. For instance, under the code an old building may not have to be retrofitted with a sprinkler system, but that carries risk for would-be resident because there has never been a loss of life in a building with a properly maintained sprinkler system, Briscoe said.

While safety is a concern, finding new uses for historic buildings is also important for the city, said Lenoir City Councilman Ben Willis.

“The fire and building code is about protecting people, that’s the most important thing,” said Willis. “In the meantime, we want development downtown.”