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Adopting Building Codes by Reference

Reference Number: MTAS-1094
Reviewed Date: 01/05/2023

Cities typically adopt one or more of the technical codes published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Council of American Building Officials (CABO), or International Code Council (ICC). The ICC was formed in 1994 by the Building Officials and Code Administrators International, Inc. (BOCA), the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), and the Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc. (SBCCI). Each organization had developed model codes for use in the United States since the early part of the 20th century. They created the ICC for the purpose of developing a single set of model codes. The three founding organizations are now part of the ICC.

One copy of each code to be adopted by reference must be on file in the city recorder's office 15 days before the ordinance incorporating the code is adopted.[1] In general, an ordinance is considered adopted when it is passed on final reading by a city's governing body according to the adoption procedures prescribed by the city charter.[2] If the ordinance provides an effective date that is later than the date of final reading on the ordinance, the ordinance is still considered passed on the date of final reading.[3] Therefore, the filing requirement is met if the code to be adopted by reference is available for public inspection in the recorder's office at least 15 days before final reading of the ordinance incorporating the code by reference.

Charter procedures for adopting ordinances may vary from city to city, but they are considered mandatory.[4] Action taken inconsistent with mandatory provisions of the charter is ultra vires and void or voidable.[5] As with any other ordinance, a city charter's ordinance adoption procedures must be followed when adopting building codes or amendments by ordinance.

Cities may not adopt by reference the penalty clauses of any building code adopted.[6] Penalties for building code violations should be set forth in the ordinance adopting the code by reference. See Sample 1, "Adopting building codes by reference with intent to adopt amendments by ordinance," or Sample 2, "Adopting building codes by reference with intent to adopt amendments administratively".

[1] T.C.A. § 6-54-502(a).

[2] Hourglass Lounge, Inc. v. City of Johnson City, 879 S.W.2d 860, 861 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1994).

[3] See Jefferson County v. City of Morristown, 1999 WL 817519 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999) (unpublished decision), at 8 (annexation ordinance is considered adopted upon final reading, the final legislative act of the governing body, though annexation is not operative for 30 days).

[4] State ex rel Wilson v. City of LaFayette, 572 S.W.2d 922, 924 (Tenn. 1978).

[5] City of Lebanon v. Baird, 756 S.W.2d 236, 241 (Tenn. 1988).

[6] T.C.A. § 6-54-504.