Friday, November 12, 2010
Building inspector’s office pays for itself
General contractors know that Carlisle Building Commissioner John Luther is one of the first people to visit about new construction or renovation projects. Luther, two part-time inspectors, and three part-time secretaries (for 18 hours of work) work for the department. It yielded the town $141,985 in revenue via building permit inspections in 2009. An additional $7,425 came from plumbing permit fees, $6,050 in gas permits and $26,815 through 25 types of electrical permit fees. The building inspector’s office is not about making money, however – although it does have to cover costs – but it is about ensuring public safety and adhering to state requirements.
Home improvement continues in Carlisle despite tougher financial times. The town’s Annual Report provides a look into the types of projects that went on in the past year, and identification of trends. Only ten projects were for building permits for new dwellings, whereas 69 were for alterations, and two were for additions. Furthermore, there were 18 porches/decks, 16 sheds, seven garages and five pools built. Eight homeowners responded to the recent rises in heating fuel by getting a permit to install woodstoves.
Fees for building inspections – and those from other town departments for fire, septic, well, oil or gas permits – are pretty standard from town to town, according to Luther. Carlisle also requires fees from other town departments such as special permits from the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, and Historical Commission. “There’s way too many permits,” laughs Luther, although acknowledging that the state and the town require them for good reasons, particularly that of public safety. Yet for small projects – like replacing a dishwasher or adding a single plug outlet – contractors “forget” to get permits. “For us to enforce that is unattainable,” admitted Luther.
“Technically if you don’t get a permit and something happens, your insurance company is going to say ‘you didn’t get a permit and we’re not going to cover you,’” said Luther. “They’re brutal.” Depending on the degree of the infraction, there can be extra fees. And if a licensed contractor is involved, they are the ones liable for not getting a permit, not the homeowner. At times, a homeowner may be unaware that a permit was taken, as the charge may be rolled into the bill, but an inspector will have had to visit the site at some point.
“If somebody does work and doesn’t get a permit, we can double or triple the fees,” said Luther, depending on when the work was done. “Everything we’re dealing with is a safety issue.” He differentiated between a homeowner coming in about a small renovation, but got caught in forgetting to get a permit, and a licensed contractor doing the work who failed to get a permit. He called the homeowner infraction “no big deal” but says that contractors should know when permits are required. Nonetheless, Luther tries to be reasonable, and rarely charges re-inspection fees to contractors who make inadvertent errors that cause an inspector to go out to a site multiple times. However, he does charge fines if contractors ignore guidance from inspectors in his office and does things their “own way” despite warnings, resulting in more visits to a site.
Identifying electrical fees
The state law does allow Massachusetts homeowners to do their own electrical work although poor results can be dire. According to Luther, “You can kill yourself or burn your house down.”
“In Carlisle, we adopted a rule that says you need to get a letter from your homeowner’s insurance company saying that they know you’ll be doing your own electrical work, and you’re not licensed and it’s okay with them.” He added, “They won’t give you one.” Building inspectors can tell you that something is wrong and fails inspection, but they are prohibited from instructing someone on how to fix electrical problems, or how to do wiring themselves.
Luther presented a formalized list of electrical fees to the Selectmen on October 26. Most items are clearly electrical in nature, such as outlets and generators, but the list also included electrical support for pools, kitchen ranges, hot water tanks and solar installations. There are electrical fees for septic pumps and wells that are separate in addition to inspection fees that the Board of Health charges. The Selectmen reviewed the list of existing fees, and unanimously approved them at the time.
Luther explained that he was not changing the fees, just documenting them. He said the fees are pretty standard between towns. Nonetheless, an objection about the difference in fees between underground and over-ground wiring led the building commissioner to produce a separate list for electrical items, have it endorsed by the Selectmen, and make it clearly available for applicants.
Curb-cut fees loom ahead
While addressing the Selectmen, Luther brought up discussion of a new Carlisle-specific fee for the future: curb-cut fees. These fees would be aimed at protecting the town’s existing roads from possible damage during construction projects. Luther is currently investigating the amounts charged by other towns, and is working with town Finance Director Larry Barton to identify whether a flat deposit such as $5K per major project or a bond would work better.
Selectmen Doug Stevenson requested clarity and ease of applicability in whatever fee structure Luther ends up proposing. He asked for a clear understanding on the type of project, such as a small subdivision, that would have to pay a curb-cut fee versus a comparatively minor home improvement.
“How often are we having this problem?” asked Selectman Chair John Williams. He wondered at what point the town must step in to make road repairs caused by construction projects, citing interruption in postal delivery or the passing of school buses as possible examples.
Stevenson requested that Luther conduct a quick survey of other towns. He noted that gas utilities in streets might be damaged by construction projects. The Selectmen added that some towns put moratoriums on cutting newly paved roads for five to ten years. Luther said that he has already started research into what other towns are doing and will communicate this information when it is complete. Carlisle residents will have the opportunity to discuss a curb-cut fee at a Town Meeting and vote on the issue before the fee can go into place. ∆
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