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Inspectors push building safety

Keith Click, left, an electrician for Ortts Electric Inc., looks over a set of plans while Shenandoah County senior commercial inspector Tim Ferguson surveys the future site of the Shenandoah County Free Clinic in Woodstock on Tuesday morning. Rich Cooley/Daily

Shenandoah County senior commercial inspector Tim Ferguson, left, checks an electrical box inside the future site of the Shenandoah County Free Clinic in Woodstock on Tuesday while Robbie Kibler, construction superintendent for Lantz Construction Company of Winchester, looks on. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Alex Bridges

Tim Ferguson fights off dogs, snakes and fungal growth to make sure a building stays safe.

Ferguson's job as a building inspector for Shenandoah County for the past 14 years has landed him in difficult situations. Often, the toughest part is trying to convince builders, homeowners, renters and business owners that the inspection process is for their safety and that of others.

"We catch a lot of flak, but we do it for a reason," Ferguson said Tuesday. "We're there to make sure they're safe."

Ferguson recalled that at one inspection a resident's dog bit him. At another residence more than a dozen snakes fell on him as he checked a ceiling drooping over an electrical box in the basement.

Ferguson, who serves as the county's senior commercial inspector, on Tuesday visited the new Shenandoah County Free Clinic site under construction in Woodstock. The inspector talked to construction workers, looked at wooden support beams, electrical wiring, plumbing and the building's sprinkler system.

During a recent visit, Ferguson said he discovered problems with the wood of the original structure under the shingles. In some places, the wood appeared rotten and, as a result, crews had to replace the roofing.

Shenandoah County's Building Inspection/Code Enforcement office, which has one building official, three inspectors, a plan examiner and two permit technicians, handles permitting for construction in the county and each of its six towns. The office inspects carnivals and other amusements and also conducts the semi-annual inspection of all elevators in the county.

Data from the office shows they likely could perform more than 6,000 inspections in the current fiscal year. The office issued more than 1,617 permits in FY 2012.

Shenandoah County Building Code Official Michael Dellinger explained that inspectors perform a minimum of 20 first-time inspections on any given site, but can do up to 26. His office remains busy and runs into criticism from builders and homeowners alike for not responding quickly enough to their calls for an inspection.

"When somebody calls for an inspection, the Uniform Statewide Building Code says that we have 48 hours to complete that inspection," Dellinger said. "What'll happen is somebody will call in today for an inspection tomorrow."

The few inspectors plan each day's inspections in such a way as to travel a loop around the county or through the towns. The inspectors have divided the county into northern and southern sections. Ferguson, whose job covers the entire county, said he drives an average of 150 miles per day, though he predicts the office will be performing more inspections this summer.

With regards to the Free Clinic project, in addition to regular inspections, an inspector must remain on site at least twice a week to observe the work, Dellinger said. The requirement came as part of the grant awarded for the project.

"I have to record how many people are there, who they work for and what they do," Ferguson said.

Dellinger added that the inspectors record the weather conditions at the time of their visits for future reference.

The office also handles the global information system recording of properties. This year the office began inspecting rental properties -- approximately 180 of them -- that receive section 8 housing assistance from the Department of Social Services. The office also works with other county agencies in response to disasters that can damage properties. The office receives calls from property owners, and inspectors respond to collect information they can file with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In Virginia, May marks Building Safety Month, which is recognized around the world by the International Code Council. Many jurisdictions in Virginia are planning educational programs and public service efforts.

Warren County Building Official David Beahm explained that his office has similar plans.

"We hope to be able to provide the public with a better understanding as to how the building code actually works to help them as [opposed] to being a hindrance --'you're just telling me what I can't do' -- as opposed to what we can do," Beahm said.

Building code officials and inspectors plan to focus on four areas during the month: fire safety; disaster safety and mitigation; backyards and pools; and energy and green building, Beahm said.

Warren County continues to see more applications for permits and an increase in the number of single-family homes under construction, Beahm said. The county has not seen the volume of houses under construction since around 2008, he said. The county saw housing construction numbers fall from 2008 through 2011, but then experienced about a 10 percent improvement in FY 2012, Beahm said.

Commercial permitting has remained steady over the years thanks to large projects that spur smaller building, Beahm said.

In Warren County's case, one inspector usually must handle one project regardless of the size.

Warren County's building inspections office has issued 1,439 permits since July 1, according to data from Beahm. All individual permits for one house under construction fall under the single project, Beahm said.

Warren County's department has nine people on staff - six full-time and three part-time. The county has three, full-time inspectors and two part-time inspectors. But the county must see a more dramatic increase in construction and permitting before Beahm says his department would need more people.

"I look at it as a business venture and I'm not going to increase the payroll just because I see a small increase at this point in time," Beahm said.

Inspectors present their job to contractors as "a second set of eyes" on a project to help catch mistakes or missed items in the construction process, Beahm said.

"Sometimes things get missed and we're there, hopefully to be that last line of defense to assist them," Beahm.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com


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