Colin Mills: Virginia’s Building Code, Now More Accessible

Colin Mills/File photoRCA is a locally-focused organization. Our primary goal, as our name suggests, is to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Reston. As a result, our projects are usually Reston-specific. Every once in a while, though, we have a chance to do something that benefits people beyond our community’s borders.

One such effort has recently come to fruition for RCA’s Reston Accessibility Committee and its hard-working chair, Ken Fredgren. For the last two years, Ken and others have been pushing for the adoption of changes to Virginia’s statewide building code to make it friendlier to people with disabilities. Those changes have now been adopted, and the people of Virginia, not just Reston, will benefit.

How did RAC get involved in changing statewide building codes? As you might know, RAC works with Reston’s commercial property owners and managers to make their properties more accessible for people with disabilities. In the course of doing this kind of work, they have naturally become familiar with the relevant laws and codes. RAC felt that Virginia’s building codes could be improved to incorporate more language on accessibility.

To address this issue, in 2011 Reston’s delegate (and proud RAC member) Ken Plum sponsored House Joint Resolution  648, which established a working group to recommend accessibility-related changes to Virginia’s building codes and laws. And Ken Fredgren was tapped to serve on that working group.  This time, instead of helping property owners understand the accessibility regulations, Ken got to help write them.

One of the great things about the working group is the way developers, county and city permitting officials, and disability advocacy groups collaborated to develop their recommendations. It was a fine example of the good that can happen when the private and public sectors work together for a common goal.

After a year’s effort, the working group emerged in 2012 with a total of 7 proposed changes to the building code and one General Assembly bill that would provide tax credits for businesses that made accessibility-related improvements. Ken proudly presented the group’s products to RCA, and naturally we were in full support. In October of that year, RCA and several co-sponsors held a community forum to discuss the changes and urge Restonians to call and email in support of their adoption.

I’m not sure if Ken knew quite what he was in for. He had already been traveling back and forth to Richmond on a regular basis to meet with the working group, and over the following year, he made several more trips to present their proposals to the Board of Housing and Community Development (which makes changes to Virginia’s building code), then to discuss and make revisions to the proposals, and on and on.  These trips weren’t always easy for Ken, but he kept at it because of his commitment to the cause of accessibility.

The proposals went through several rounds of revision; some were dropped, others were modified.  It was a long and sometimes frustrating process.  But Ken persevered; he wrote letters to the Board, exchanged emails with staffers, and kept attending meetings.

In the end, the Board approved four of the working group’s proposals. Together, these changes represent a huge step forward in the building code.

Two of the changes are related to home construction.  One change will incorporate Universal Design standards, which makes buildings easier for older people and those with disabilities to use, for use in building new homes. Another mandates wider interior doors on the main floor of new dwellings, so that people in wheelchairs or mobility devices can move from room to room.  That second change is important for people with and without disabilities. Imagine if you invited a friend who uses a wheelchair to your house, only to discover she couldn’t use the bathroom because the door was too narrow.

The other two adopted changes relate to the number of accessible spaces required in parking lots.  Another increases the number of accessible parking spaces that must be constructed in large lots.  And the last one calls for additional accessible parking spaces in lots connected to medical facilities such as outpatient clinics and dentist’s offices.  A lot of RAC’s work involves adding or modifying accessible parking spaces, and I know that Ken is acutely aware of the challenge of finding accessible spaces in busy lots.

Thanks to the efforts of Ken and the HJR 648 working group, our building code is friendlier to people with disabilities than it has ever been. Almost 20 percent of Virginians have a disability, and I’m proud that my state’s building code is now working for them.  Parking lots, medical buildings, and homes are basic facilities, and people with disabilities should have the same ability to access them as people without.

As our population ages, these changes will also help Virginia remain an appealing place to live.  If people with disabilities can’t find homes with Universal Design features or can’t find places to park where they shop, eat, or go to the doctor, they’re less likely to remain in Virginia and spend their money here. Accessibility improvements aren’t just good for people with disabilities — they’re good for business.

I’m very proud of what Ken’s accomplished with the working group. These building code modifications are lasting changes that will make life better for Virginians with disabilities, their families and friends, and all of us.

And don’t worry — just because Ken’s been working on this effort doesn’t mean that RAC has stopped making progress on projects here in Reston.  They’ve remained active on several projects all over our community, and I look forward to sharing the news once they’re successfully completed.

Most of the work we do at RCA primarily benefits Restonians, and that’s great. But I’m really glad for this opportunity to do something that has a statewide impact.  Ken Fredgren is a model of hard work and dedication to service, and this example demonstrates how serving your community can have a bigger impact than you ever thought possible.

Colin Mills is the president of Reston Citizens Association. He writes a weekly opinion piece on Reston Now.

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