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Colorado doesn’t have a statewide building code. Would enacting one help protect homes against wildfire?

A handful of state lawmakers are interested in the idea, in part to secure more federal dollars
An aircraft lays down a line of fire retardant between a wildfire and homes in the dry, densely wooded Black Forest area northeast of Colorado Springs on June 13, 2013. (John Wark/Associated Press file)

A handful of Democratic state lawmakers are interested in pursuing legislation next year that would enact a statewide minimum building code in Colorado as part of broader long-term efforts to prepare for wildfires driven by a warming climate.

The new code could help unlock millions of dollars in federal grant funding to protect communities against wildfire and other disasters, while also ensuring new homes are built with materials and landscaping resistant to flames.

“One of the most effective hazard mitigation tools is a building code,” said Kevin Klein, executive director of Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Counties and municipalities across the state already have building codes – some that are robust and written with wildfire in mind – but there isn’t a universal framework like in other parts of the country. California, Utah, New Mexico and Washington, which are also prone to wildfire, all have a statewide minimum building code, according to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.

A statewide building code may make new construction more costly. But after investing tens of millions of dollars on new wildfire-response initiatives, including purchasing a state-of-the-art wildfire fighting helicopter, some state lawmakers say it’s time for local governments, builders and homeowners to pitch in, too.

“We have made significant new state budgetary investments in mitigation, in suppression, and it feels like we’re in a situation where we need to look seriously at minimum codes and enhancing enforcement,” said state Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who sits on the Legislature’s powerful Joint Budget Committee. “If we’re going to spend a lot of additional state resources, I think it’s perfectly reasonable then to require some minimum codes.”

Hansen said he thinks enacting a statewide minimum building code will be “ripe for action” when the Legislature returns to work in January. That’s a strong sign that a bill will be introduced, though it’s not clear what the minimum regulations may be.

It’s also not clear there’s enough political willpower behind the proposal for it to pass.

Local governments and homebuilders are lining up in opposition to the idea, warning that it’s too expensive and that it flies in the face of Colorado’s local control governing structure.

“It may not be the solution that some folks think that it is,” said Meghan Dollar, legislative advocacy manager for the Colorado Municipal League, which opposes the proposal.

Ted Leighty, CEO of the Colorado Association of Home Builders, said “homeowners and local communities are best served by building codes collaboratively developed and enforced at the local level.”

“Colorado has a diverse geography, and a cookie-cutter approach to building codes will not work across urban, suburban, rural and mountain areas,” he said. “That’s especially important when addressing wildfire concerns. By maintaining local building codes, our members can work directly with counties, cities and towns, as well as fire and emergency officials, to address issues and concerns that pertain to each area.”

Leighty cited the example of Colorado Springs, where new policies were enacted after the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire to ensure homes in the wildland-urban interface are landscaped in a fire-wise way.

“Market forces, such as the ability to obtain and retain insurance, are also powerful incentives for property owners to mitigate their risk,” Leight said. “One of the most important roles of state and local governments is to provide resources to help educate homeowners about how to mitigate risk through defensible spaces and hardening of structures.”

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican who works in construction, argues a statewide minimum building code would fly in the face of Colorado’s tradition of letting counties and cities make regulatory decisions for themselves.

“To adopt a building-code standard in some way is to go against the local control aspect that we have really tried to preserve,” he said, calling the proposal an example of creating more government for the sake of government.

McKean pointed out that most – if not all – local governments in Colorado already adhere to a model set out by the International Code Council.

But counties and municipalities can make changes to that standard to weaken or strengthen their policies. A statewide minimum policy would set a baseline. And to secure federal grant dollars there has to be a statewide policy enacted, not an unofficial universal acceptance of a regulatory framework.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency distributes annual awards for disaster mitigation projects through its Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program. Grants are scored on a number of criteria, including whether a state has a statewide minimum building code.

In fact, that parameter counts for 20 out of 100 scorable points when it comes to deciding where dollars will be awarded, according to Klein, the emergency management chief. States with no statewide building code get no points in the category.

Those points can really matter for state’s seeking grants under the highly competitive initiative. Last year, $500 million was available, but more than $3.6 billion in requests were made. This year, $1 billion in funding is on the line.

“Any points you can get matter,” Klein said.

One of the grant awards made last year was to Sonoma County in California, a state that has a statewide minimum building code. FEMA awarded $37 million to a project that included reducing vegetation and creating buffers around structures to decrease fire spread and intensity and increase forest health and water quality.

“These funds will help us implement ‘house outward’ strategies such as cost-share incentives for private property owners who need help with hardening structures or creating defensible space,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said in a written statement announcing the funding. “Our goal is to get to 100% of at-risk homes having defensible space.”

Colorado? It wasn’t awarded any Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant money in 2020.

“I’m very concerned about the amount of funding we’re not eligible for,” state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who also sits on the JBC, said during a statehouse hearing over the summer.

Burnt trees and destroyed homes are left in the wake of a wildfire in the densely wooded Black Forest area northeast of Colorado Springs on June 13, 2013. (John Wark/Associated Press file)

Michael Morgan, who leads Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said the regulatory change is by no means a done deal.

“We’re in the infancy of exploring this,” he told the Legislature this summer. “The governor asked us to look at land use, at development and then building resiliency and how does that all blend in the state of Colorado.”

Some wildfire-prone counties – like Summit and Boulder – have already enacted stricter wildfire-minded codes and building regulations. But it’s not universal.

Dollar, with the Colorado Municipal League, is sympathetic to the funding concerns. But she warns that implementing a statewide building code would be a burden on local governments then charged with enforcing it. They don’t have the money for that kind of work.

“It puts us in a tough position,” she said. “We’ve been talking about this since 2012. The idea for statewide building code consistently comes up and CML has opposed it.”

Dollar said her group, which represents cities and towns across the state, wants to find other solutions to prepare for wildfires. They support more legislative investment in mitigation work, for instance.

Still, a 2013 report issued by a wildfire and forest health task force formed by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper found that “adapting structures through measures such as building codes, fire-wise building materials and zoning can appreciably reduce risks.”

One hurdle is what to do with existing homes, which likely wouldn’t be subject to the enactment of minimum code.

The report summarized the prospects of code changes like this: “The leaders and citizens of Colorado must make difficult choices requiring complex political trade-offs and behavioral changes.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.