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Room for interpretation

December 1, 2011

Before a business moves into a new facility and creates jobs, its building must be inspected.

The inspector — using rules and codes handed down by the state — can give that facility an OK or require changes that can delay an opening, thus costing the business more money.

While the code is the code, inspectors, developers and real estate brokers agree there is room for interpretation — a small amount of wiggle space that can either make development easier or create costly delays.

During a time when more than 40,000 area jobs have been lost, one local real estate expert is asking inspectors to make judgments of “greater economic freedom.”

Andy Wells, a managing partner at Hickory-based real estate company The Prism Group, says local building inspectors have almost “unlimited power” to interpret gray areas of code and regulation — a power he says should be used to ease economic growth, not delay it.

“When there is a decision to be made or an action to be taken or a gray area in a volume of rules, come down on the side of greater economic freedom and individual liberty,” Wells said recently to the Catawba County Board of Commissioners.

Wells wants the county to make it policy that inspectors do everything they can to not limit economic opportunities — something county officials say they already do.

“It only makes sense to require people to do the minimum things they must do in order for them to achieve what they want to do,” said Rick Frady, the county’s chief building services official. “As long as something meets the intent and is safe and acceptable, that’s always what we lean toward.”

On a daily basis, inspectors are applying codes with black and white language to new structures or renovations being constructed.

Interpretation of the codes happens every day, Frady said.

“As we look at the intent of the code, we are able to make those judgment calls in the favor of development even though the developer sometimes doesn’t see that,” he said. “Any additional cost is a step in the backward direction, but it takes investment in money to make money, and we have to make sure those life-safety measures are in place.”

When an inspector makes a ruling on a building, the developer or broker has a couple of choices.

For one, the builder can appeal the ruling — something that could cause extensive delays to the process.

The other choice is to concede to the inspector's ruling and pay for required changes in order to obtain a certificate of occupancy — a choice Wells said can be very expensive.

“The problem with this choice is economic, too; it increases the cost of the house or office, sometimes for no good purpose,” Wells said in his speech to the commissioners. “And we’re not talking about minor cost increases.

I’ve seen these last minute ‘additions’ cost as much as $15,000.”

Real examples
Wells says some of the rulings inspectors make aren’t about safety issues and cross into aesthetic-based areas. As he addressed the county commissioners, he brought up two recent examples of when his company was denied a certificate of occupancy for two houses.

On one house, Prism was denied a certificate of occupancy for a home that did not have gutters. Wells said the homeowners made a “conscious decision” to avoid the maintenance associated with gutters and had graded and stoned the sloping lot to address drainage issues. Regardless, the home was denied the certificate.

At another house, an inspector ruled that it was necessary to add more insulation in an Energy Star home. Wells said the inspector determined that the home needed additional insulation on an attic access door that was already “insulated and certified.”

In response to Wells’ comments, county utilities and engineering director Barry Edwards drafted a memo that addressed why each ruling was made on the two houses. The memo listed each reason the certificate of occupancy was “turned down,” along with the appropriate state building regulation.

In total, there were 12 “turndown” rulings combined that prevented the two houses from getting a certificate of occupancy, ranging from drainage and plumbing issues to electrical violations. Two of the “turndowns” — both dealing with displaying house numbers for emergency responders — were reversed after further inspection.

“After careful review of these Wells Projects’ final inspection reports, discussions with staff, and taking into consideration Mr. Wells’ comments and complaints, I conclude that our staff acted aptly, legally, and appropriately in their every action,” Edwards wrote in conclusion.

Reduction of force
This summer, the county cut 10 unfilled building inspector positions.

To date, the county has cut 14 Building Services positions since the housing market started to decline in 2008.

Even with the cuts, County Manager Tom Lundy said the county has been able to do 75 percent of inspections the same day as the request, which is their goal.

"Building permits have declined more than 25 percent since 2008," Lundy said earlier this year. "With the permits declining, the revenues have declined, and the demand for service has declined."

Frady, too, agreed that despite facing cuts, Building Services has weathered the storm fairly well.

“It’s become difficult because we did go through a reduction of force,” he said. “That has become a challenge, and there is some outcry from the public. They are not able to get the level of service they used to, but we are getting to inspections at nearly the same rate."

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