Pierce County building officials are hoping to make safe and legal the thousands of decks, sheds, garages and even entire homes that have gone up without required permits in recent years.
Starting this week and continuing until 2012, they are offering a building amnesty program to allow property owners to obtain the proper inspections and permits and avoid paying the usual penalty.
And those who don’t initiate the process voluntarily may be hearing from the county anyway. Using aerial images from 2005 and 2008 and a computer program, the county is identifying structures that have popped up on the landscape and checking to see if they were permitted. When workers find an undocumented structure, they will contact property owners and point them toward the amnesty program.
“We’re interested in compliance, not punishment,” said Chuck Kleeberg, director of the county Planning and Land Services Department. “That’s why we’re waiving the penalties.”
Building officials are always on the lookout for scofflaw structures, but only recently became aware of a startling number of undocumented buildings. Using the before-and-after aerial photos and a geographic information systems program, technicians were able to flag many of the new structures.
When planning staff members started spot-checking sections of the county, they found some neighborhoods where as many as 70 percent of new structures lacked proper permits.
So far, they’ve reviewed about 28,000 acres over several neighborhoods, a small fraction of the unincorporated county administered by the department. Within that land they found that half of the 1,439 new structures lacked the necessary permits. Almost all of those were accessory buildings such as garages or sheds, but 11 were “primary structures” such as homes or businesses.
The aerial analysis likely understates the amount of unpermitted activity. The photos can’t see through heavy tree canopy, so areas including the Key Peninsula did not show a large amount of building activity, Kleeberg said.
Kleeberg and his staff members see a couple of factors behind the noncompliance. The three years under review coincided with a building and remodeling boom in the county. Do-it-yourselfers may have not known they needed a permit or been discouraged by long lines at the permitting counter.
Another reason has to do with the county Assessor-Treasurer’s Office, which skipped physical inspections used to set tax values for many properties for years. Normally, the building permit division would rely on property appraisers conducting physical inspections to flag new buildings that had not been permitted. The planning department is now working with the Assessor-Treasurer’s Office as it tackles a backlog of physical inspections that may find more unpermitted buildings.
So why worry about past permits? First and foremost, it’s about safety and soundness of structures, Kleeberg said.
As a worst-case scenario, he points to the 2001 deck collapse in Parkland that killed a Pacific Lutheran University student. The deck hadn’t been inspected and had been fastened to the home with substandard bolts.
It’s also a matter of fairness. Those who took out the proper permits, and are paying taxes on the improvements, are basically subsidizing those who did not, Kleeberg said.
The building agency set up the amnesty program as a way to encourage voluntary compliance. County building official Gordon Aleshire said he’s not aware of any other such program in Washington but did come across some in other states.
Building officials are not sure how many people will take advantage of the offer, which will go on for three years. Kleeberg admits to being a little wary that a crush of applications will overwhelm his staff, which has declined by about one-third as building permit revenue has dried up.
While the lull in building activity may give the staff more time to go back and ensure compliance, Kleeberg does not believe the permit revenue will be a cash cow for the financially troubled county.
“I’m hopeful we’re going to generate enough to pay for the staff that’s in the field,” he said.
John Henrikson: 253-597-8651
BUILDING PERMIT AMNESTY PROGRAM
Who’s eligible? Property owners in unincorporated Pierce County and South Prairie with undocumented construction work.
How do I know if an improvement needed a permit? Check the county Planning and Land Services Web site for details, but generally structures and additions of greater than 200 square feet and decks higher than 30 inches need permits. Owners are responsible for work on their property even if it was done by a previous owner. You can review the permits on file for your property online.
How much can I expect to pay? It depends on the size and type of improvement, but permit fees range from less than $100 for a small deck, to $200 for a typical carport, to a couple of thousand dollars for a single family home. Application and inspection fees may also apply. Without the amnesty program, building permit fees would double as a penalty.
How do I get the process started? Building department officials are encouraging property owners to use the online application process at www.piercecountywa.org/pals to apply and submit plans. You can also call 253-798-3739 to schedule an appointment to file an application.