Payson has undertaken a top-to-bottom overhaul of 1,000 pages of building code, including changes intended to reduce the danger a wildfire will sweep in from the forest and rage through the densely forested town, according to Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
At last week’s council meeting, Evans urged council members to hurry up and finish a preliminary review of the monumental building code overhaul.
Each council member received a massive binder with the proposed overhaul of every element of the town code, based on a point-by-point analysis of the latest recommended changes of the International Building Code.
That includes about 184 pages that relate to the fire code.
Last year, the Payson Building Advisory Board on a 3-3 vote balked at then-fire chief Marty deMasi’s recommendation that the town simply adopt the international code, which included elements of a so-called “firewise” building code.
The code intended for use in communities facing the danger of wildfires includes things like flame-resistant roofing and building materials, sealed attic ventilation, a ban on flammable, overhanging eaves and porches open to embers on the underside. Such codes also require homeowners to keep vegetation away from houses.
By contrast, Payson’s current building code discourages or forbids the removal of native vegetation. As a result, Payson from above looks like a thick forest with interlocking branches — ideal for a crown fire like the Rodeo-Chediski to spread through town.
Several Arizona towns suffered near disaster in recent years, demonstrating the importance of a firewise building code, including thinned buffer zones and clearing of brush and trees from residential properties. A thinned buffer zone saved Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire several years ago. Last summer in Yarnell, a wildfire that killed 19 firefighters also destroyed most of the homes in the community without an adequate cleared area around the house.
However, Payson’s fire code revision is for the moment caught up in the mammoth task of overhauling the town’s entire building code, with growing indications that the building pipeline may soon start to fill up. Town officials say developers seeking to build hundreds of homes have started the town approval process in recent weeks.
As it happens, the town is also in the midst of revising its general plan. The changes in the general plan would generally increase allowed densities and focus more on the development of light industry, apartments and commercial businesses.
Late last year, the Building Advisory Board rejected the fire chief’s recommendation that the town simply adopt in total the latest version of the International Building Codes relating to the fire code, said Evans. Half of the board agreed with that recommendation, the other half wanted to customize the international code to suit Payson.
Evans asked the other council members to review the 1,000 pages worth of revisions color-coded with the changes recommended by the international group and added suggestions from the town staff.
The town hopes to revise the building code this spring, which involves thousands of individual changes.
“It’s easier just to adopt the whole thing (the building code), but that could add $15,000 to $35,000 to the cost of a residence,” said Evans. “It’s a very, very complex process. Just because (the building advisory board) voted not to adopt the international code didn’t mean they don’t want to do anything.”
Evans said the revision will include issues like roof and building materials, overhanging eaves, porches without barriers to keep embers from getting under the house and brush and tree clearing.
However, those changes have become caught up in the mind-numbing task of making sometimes bewildering changes in every element of the building code.
“We’re moving as fast as we can move, but it’s a Herculean task,” Evans said.
He said ideally the code will reflect the different needs of different neighborhoods. For instance, he said in areas thick with trees the code might require much more expensive and fire-resistant building materials — especially roofing.
The town has in the past adopted with only minor review recommendations for changes in the international building codes, he said — resulting in a dense accumulation of sometimes overlapping and contradictory requirements as well as provisions not well suited to the town. For instance, the international building codes require turn-arounds in neighborhoods big enough for the kinds of large fire ladder trucks used in major cities — a provision difficult to apply in many Payson neighborhoods.
“So you might have a strict WUI (Wildland-Urban-Interface) standard on more deeply forested areas. If you apply the WUI code strictly, you might have to cut down 15 old-growth ponderosa. It would be nice if the world was simple, but we’re trying to maintain a forested feel to the town.”
Ideally, he said, the code would let homeowners and the town council settle on tradeoffs and establish its priorities — for instance between saving as many trees as possible in town and creating defensible clear spaces around homes.
However, he said the council is bogged down in the task of reviewing so many changes all at once.
“We’re trying, but it’s difficult. What we’re hoping to do is to get back to them with multiple-choice questions — tradeoffs. We may also have to break it into pieces.
“We took a long time to get into this mess, it may take awhile to get out.”