County building code changes wreak havoc on local contractors

Wildfire hazard mitigation measures appreciated but tough transition

By Katherine Nettles

The first building season is approaching in the Gunnison Valley since new wildfire mitigation regulations were adopted within Gunnison County’s building codes, and the new regulations have caught many in the building industry by surprise this spring. County officials are working to get everyone affected by the new codes up to speed, holding individual meetings, a contractor spring training session on Wednesday, April 26 and posting new materials on the county website. But in the meantime, many home builders and contractors are experiencing permit delays, higher material costs and confusion over how the new codes impact their projects. 

 Gunnison County commissioners approved amending the county’s Land Use Resolution (LUR) and incorporating the 2021 International Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) code last fall to address increasing urban wildland interface in the valley. The LUR changes were based on recommendations from the national Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW) program funded by the U.S. Forest Service.

The new codes apply a higher standard of wildfire hazard mitigation to all new building permit applications, effective in January 2023. This means that, in many cases, wood siding, roofing, decking and landscaping materials that formerly were allowed for new structures are either no longer permitted or permitted only in combination with other materials or approaches that increase the property’s ignition resistance. 

CPAW experts prepared a proposal and updated wildfire mapping throughout Gunnison County in collaboration with local fire professionals and stakeholders before the code was adopted last year. The county’s building department presented the potential changes to the Gunnison County Planning Commission in 2022, the commission formally recommended adoption last summer and commissioners approved it in September.

Assistant county manager for community and economic development Cathie Pagano said the idea is to offer property owners options while also improving wildfire resistance.

“The WUI Code offers property owners a variety of options and paths to achieve compliance. For example, on some sites, a homeowner may choose to have a larger area of defensible space and a lower level of ignition resistant construction materials, and another owner may decide that the vegetation on their property is very important for them to keep and so they may choose to have higher levels of ignition resistant construction. There are options for property owners which can be great but can also be challenging for people because there isn’t one solution that fits all properties,” Pagano explained.

Many local building professionals say that there has not been much notice or education about the code changes, which made for an abrupt start to this building season. And although the initial CPAW recommendations alleged that ignition resistant material prices are comparable to traditional materials, some are reporting the changes have increased their clients’ material costs by up to 20%. 

Engineer Bill Barvitski of Trout Creek Engineering says he compared the costs in each material category and found the report created by Headwater Economics and used in the county’s decision-making process, to be misleading, for example comparing the most expensive wood siding (cedar) to the least expensive, flame-resistant cement board siding. He also says many people do not realize the new codes apply to them.

“The biggest thing that the public needs to understand is that this new code affects everyone who is required to apply for any building permit from Gunnison County, not just in ‘heavily forested’ areas, as a ‘wildfire’ code may be perceived. It includes properties along golf courses, irrigated hay meadows, open sage brush or along river systems of all property sizes,” says Barvitski. 

He has already gone through the new regulation process on several different projects, met with the community development department and with county commissioners and is still trying to gain more clarity on the new fire hazard mapping and associated requirements for different areas.  

“A lot of people walk in my door with just a general idea of building something,” said Barvitski. “I’d love to be able to tell them at that time how to plan for this, and that my information about materials, sprinklers etc. is accurate to allow them at that stage to decide if they can and want to build or not.” 

Having formerly been a general contractor for almost 20 years, Barvitski says he has seen a lot of code changes. “But this [code change] is the biggest change since it can affect several if not all exterior finishes of a home depending on the ignition resistant class the property falls under. Roof, siding, decks, landscaping. And property owners’ associations (POAs), they only meet a couple times per year anyway. They need to have all this information.”

Troy Golle, a sales contractor at Alpine Lumber, says he is somewhat familiar with this process from having worked in Eagle-Vail previously when Eagle County adopted the same code. He says it has still been a tough path for him and his clients to understand the new regulations, and many details appear to still be getting worked out at the county level. He had a meeting scheduled with Gunnison County’s community development department this week and plans to attend the county’s contractor training session later this month along with most others he knows in the building industry.

“Everybody understands why we’re doing it and sees the need, it’s just the communication and being clear about, on our end of things, what materials are acceptable, and which are not,” he said. “This time of year is when all the new plans roll out from the architects and engineers. For many of them, these plans have been in the architect’s office and in the design process since before 2023. And some are not going to pass with this new code. We’re trying to figure out how to make those plans work or find alternatives for them.”

Golle says he had heard and read about the county’s decision to adopt WUI, but it had not been clear to him how extensive it would be.

“And now as new building plans are coming out and contractors are getting new jobs this spring, that’s where the panic kind of set in. Because with a lot of these materials, there’s a higher cost associated with this new code.”

Alpine Lumber is working to establish the siding options that are acceptable and ignition resistant, but initially found alternatives that were three times the cost of regular wood siding. As of press time, Grolle was hopeful that he had found something comparable in price and was awaiting the next meeting with county officials to determine if these materials are acceptable options.  

“It’s like anything new; it’s a struggle at first, but once we get these first four to five new projects done, I think everyone will have a better grip on what they need to do and what products will work,” said Grolle.

As he experiences his second county adoption of WUI, he hopes others will be more proactive with outreach and education. 

“If other counties are looking at doing it, I would highly suggest them putting out as much info as they can so people are aware of it. The more notice that counties can give and the clearer the information, the better. It sure seems a lot of our guys are kinda caught by surprise.”

Barvitski says he is supportive of the overall concept to reduce the community’s vulnerability to wildfire, but it was implemented too fast. “I agree with the idea that there is never a good time to implement a new code like this, however I feel there could have been a better implementation. I believe there could have been better education, especially with material suppliers, HOAs, POAs, design professionals, contractors, realtors and the general public,” he says. “If it were just me, then that is on me, but most if not all contractors, realtors, designers, HOAs were unaware of this code and its true impact until the past month or so.” He points out that most contractors were focused on another new hurdle, the county’s requirement that contractors obtain building contractor licenses for any building permits issued after February 1, 2023. “In contrast, contractor licensing was well communicated in our community and we all had plenty of  warning,” he says.

Pagano says she has heard the feedback from the building community, and her department is trying to make the transition easier in a few different ways. “We are working with customers regularly to answer questions and provide feedback on the WUI Code. We have heard that some people feel that they did not receive enough advance notice that this was going into effect,” she said. 

“We’re pleased to meet with individual property owners or their representatives to discuss their specific project and questions. Also, our department will be hosting a spring contractor meeting on April 26 at 7:30 a.m. in the Planning Commission meeting room at Blackstock’s Government Center (and available on Zoom) where we will give a high-level overview of the WUI Code. We are also working to schedule an additional training for designers, contractors, architects and engineers on the WUI Code in the next one to two months.” 

Pagano recommended the county’s new wildfire webpage which provides step-by-step instructions for applying the WUI code to parcels in Gunnison County and a new building application and information packet. That webpage can be found at 

gunnisoncounty.org/1005/Wildfire-Info and the forms can be found at www.gunnisoncounty.org/409/Application-Forms

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