WHERE’S THE PERMIT?
FIRING OF CODE CHIEF FIRST SHOT IN PERMIT SCAM
PERMIT FRAUD COULD COST PROPERTY OWNERS UNTOLD SUMS; LEAVES ST. MARY’S OPEN TO MILLIONS IN CLAIMS & CLASS ACTION SUIT
The happy face of St. Mary’s Board may soon be replaced with the mantle of responsibility for region’s biggest government boondoggle
News and Commentary
By Ken Rossignol
THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY
LEONARDTOWN, MD. — What could be the biggest, most expensive and foundation shattering event to hit the pocketbooks of St. Mary’s County residents is likely to be an occasion many folks would just as soon never, ever, remember. Like the earthquake that hit the region, leaving minor damage as it emanated out from Mineral, Virginia or the visit by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, which devastated all waterfront areas of St. Mary’s County, the toll from this newest disaster unfolding in the county seat of Leonardtown, will go down in history.
The bodies are on the way under the bus with the first one already tossed as those ultimately responsible all will likely claim that this disaster – fraudulent issuance of building permits and use and occupancy permits – all took place without their knowledge and that they “didn’t know” or they “weren’t involved.”
The buck stops at the Board of County Commissioners, and any one of them is invited, today, to immediately email their STATEMENT of innocence and it will be posted with this story. Not wishing to take up too much time waiting for those five Republicans to pony up their surrender documents to this news operation or for them to trot over to the Circuit Clerk’s Office and turn in their resignations from office, which would be a wise choice; this story will continue to unfold as you scroll down the page.
Officials have confirmed that Brian Taylor, who until just recently was head of Inspections & Permits and had the title of Code Coordinator, has been fired. Not terminated, not “resigned” but fired. St. Mary’s County Attorney George Sparling, a fellow who was a great criminal attorney but will likely implode over this boondoggle and soon retire, is reportedly ready to issue a watered-down description of the dire straits where many property owners will find themselves.
It is alleged by several officials that Taylor went out on his own, sometimes on Sundays, to sign off on electrical work, plumbing work, foundations and those other parts of the puzzle which make up residential and commercial construction in St. Mary’s County.
For decades, the MDIA, a private firm, had the exclusive contract to handle that work for the county government. For the most part, the work was performed efficiently but slowly. On one occasion, an inspector with the firm was nabbed for stealing money from a home he had inspected but for the most part, property owners were mostly peeved over the arrogance and sloth in which MDIA performed their permit approvals.
Another target for the ire of property owners has historically been the equally moronic, arrogant and mental midget morons of the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office. There may be politer and more neutral ways to describe the way, manner, and promptness that the Fire Marshal performs the task of reviewing and approving building plans, but the harsh description best describes the way many property owners view this agency. But the bosses of the agency and the state’s politicians need to understand the low esteem that many hold the Fire Marshal for in the task of approving plans. Perhaps the task and duty should be moved to professional engineers.
The building boom and desire for developers and homebuilders to have permits approved along with the low-quality of one particular St. Mary’s permits office staffer who was canned a few years ago, brought about more mayhem in the office of Land Use and Growth Management.
Some citizens wonder why the LUGM would be slow to process permits now since the 2008 financial meltdown and Great Recession put the brakes on a lot of development. Others can point to the comeback of the local economy and the explosion of new home construction and burgeoning construction along the Rt. 235 corridor in California, Md., as putting additional pressure on the permits process.
Politicians have been trying for years to “streamline” the process and the most successful effort to that end was the termination of the exclusive contract with MDIA, explained one official, who spoke candidly in return for not being named in this article.
WHY WAS TAYLOR FIRED?
When a news operation attempts to find out from an elected or appointed official the answer to that question, the standard answer is always: “That’s a personnel issue.”
Your local officials, beginning with Sheriff Tim Cameron, use that dodge to cover up all manner of official corruption and incompetence. The incompetence is to be expected, after all, this is the government. It is the arena where twenty-five percent of the workforce does all the work while others sit around, if they show up, and collect paychecks because they are of a certain race, gender or Good Old Boy family. One has to feel sorry for the hardworking government workers who stay late, take work home and voluntarily come in on Saturdays to finish work on a deadline. They are truly heroes, and we all know what the rest of them should be called.
There is no sense in asking Sheriff Cameron what came of the cops who shot up the house in Wildewood by firing automatic weapons from a nearby farm as if they were a bunch of drunk rednecks on a backwoods weekend in the wilds of West Virginia. Sheriff Cameron said he was “mortified” by the event of cop’s bullets embedded in a wall just a few feet from where a baby lay in a crib. Sheriff Cameron said he couldn’t discuss one of his commanders falsifying overtime records as to do so would be to “discuss personnel,” which of course, he can’t do. Sheriff Cameron promised to release to this publication the State Prosecutors Report on the theft by deputies of $80,000 worth of building materials in 2002. He made that promise several times and has yet to do so. This is certainly a public issue as the public trust was violated by the Assistant Sheriff, who doled out building materials held in property storage which had been seized in a raid of a drug dealer’s home with a search warrant. The charges were dropped, and a Judge ordered the Sheriff to return the property to the drug dealer and then – shazam Batman, THE LOOT WAS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND. Sheriff Cameron could solve that mystery, once and for all, but he hasn’t, even though he promised to do so. Why is all of this relevant to an LUGM Code Coordinator being fired for allegedly signing off on building permits when he had no authority to do so?
Well, I am glad you asked.
Sheriff Cameron is leading a criminal investigation into this affair.
WHERE’S THE PERMIT? WHERE’S THE LOOT?
Sherriff Cameron, inquiring minds want to know. And, while you are digging around Leonardtown, please accept this Public Information Request for the audits of all drugs and guns in the possession of the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Department for the fiscal years 2008 through 2015. The information can include such items as where did the items come from and where did they go?
WHERE’S THE DRUGS? WHERE’S THE GUNS?
It seems that there may be interconnecting parts for some of these scandals. Like the old song, the hip bone’s connected to the leg bone and so forth. Why would Sheriff Cameron demote a top commander who stole from the taxpayers, let that person stay home for six months at full pay while he “investigated” the theft, then diminish the pay and responsibilities? Why? The good old Grapevine has it that the Good Old Boys of Cameron’s agency have played fast and loose with all kinds of things and the person kept their job due to being able to nail those Good Old Boys with evidence of what they did in violation of law and agency policy. Sadly, it appears the Sheriff’s Department continues to run under the rules of Laurel and Hardy and Keystone Cops II.
WHERE’S THE PERMIT?
Now, enter into this story one big mouth County Commissioner, who allegedly tipped off a reporter for the Hambone Gazette that an investigation was underway into the wheeling and dealing at LUGM (Land Use and Growth Management). The Police were laying their traps, preparing their search warrants and ready to question witnesses. But Commissioner O’Mouth is believed to have removed the element of surprise.
Well, it won’t matter a lot anymore because it seems that St. Mary’s County is now moving to learn of their potential liability. A daycare center was notified that their foundations would have to be inspected. That’s not going to be comfortable, bringing in a backhoe and digging down alongside the foundations but other than some landscaping, pavement and frazzled nerves, how bad can it be?
Soon, homeowners who had the super-duper permit service guy from the county show up and sign off on their wiring will get a letter from the county saying that their wiring needs to be inspected. How do you do that? With a backhoe? A sledgehammer to remove that tacky wallboard with the flowered wallpaper that should never have been put up will, fortunately, be wiped out. But who pays for it?
Dear READER: here is the bad news. These incompetent, illegal and allegedly criminal acts were performed by a county employee who was head of one of the five major divisions of the LUGM Office. This wasn’t some scam done by a crooked banker, a crooked developer or a crooked real estate con-man. This was done by YOUR GOVERNMENT. You know, the one run by those five Republicans you elected (I voted for them too, except for that nitwit Morgan) in 2014.
The property owners who have properties which were not properly or legally inspected now have a GIANT BLACK CLOUD on their properties.
They can’t sell them without disclosing the problem. If they do, they can be held liable.
If they don’t know about the GIANT BLACK CLOUD and put their properties which had defective approvals on the market, any smart buyer is going to demand a certification from the county. Now, it could get to be really fun if fraudulent certifications of legal permits are handed out. Then, the Attorney General could fill a bus in Leonardtown for the state prison.
The property owner who is being transferred and has their property up for sale is going to pay in many ways. What REALTOR will list a property for sale without checking the permit status for the property? Only a silly fool, but there are lots of real estate agents like that, just pray yours isn’t one of them.
The homeowner who is stuck paying a mortgage on a property which may be fatally flawed will pay – big time. For complete foundation, plumbing and wiring inspections to be provided, legally, this time, by St. Mary’s County, the home might have to be vacated and torn apart. Insurance won’t cover it, you’re lucky to get storm damage covered. Try telling your mortgage company that they have to pay for it. Maybe Title Insurance will cover it, but don’t hold your breath.
The area has a lot of attorneys who might start putting up neat videos on YOUTUBE advertising for you to come to them to pursue your claim of FRAUD against the St. Mary’s County Government. But remember, YOU ARE the St. Mary’s County Government. To pay your claim and those of perhaps thousands of others, millions of dollars will have to be raised in the one way that the Bozo Board of Commissioners has available to them.
That is going to be a hit with Commissioner O’Mouth as he favors raising taxes, is pushing for Code Home Rule which removes legislative oversight over the Bozos in Leonardtown and he wants to run the Sheriff’s Department, perhaps by creating a county police department. That could be a good thing, Commissioner O’Mouth might find out where the guns and the drugs and the loot all went.
The taxes on your property could double or triple to pay off the millions in damages. You can bet your booties that the Local Government Insurance Trust (LGIT) won’t be anxious to drawn into this, and even if they do, they will skyrocket the rates charged to St. Mary’s for insurance.
The County’s Bond rating will sink. Maybe be a minus FFF. That will be a good thing as this St. Mary’s Board, which is uniquely qualified to only do one task – hand out plaques and awards to endless streams of appreciative employees who all get the morning off to pick up their award – won’t be able to borrow any more money. That’s a good thing. There had be a silk purse somewhere in this stinking mess.
WHO’S NEXT TO BE THROWN UNDER THE BUS?
A good candidate would be the County Administrator, Dr. Bridgett, who should be fired for letting this happen.
They can’t fire Sue Sabo, the commissioners all posed for a final photo with her as she retired in January as Chief of Staff / Director of Human Resources. She did two stints in the last four years as Acting County Administrator. Sabo is directly responsible for classification and hiring and firing of county employees. She clearly knew when to retire.
That old stuff about fitting a square peg in a round hole.
Sue Sabo stuffed an unqualified guy into the Code Office and his boss, Phil Shire clearly rang the Peter Principle Bell on this deal.
The Bells of St. Mary’s should have a final ring for Phil, too, and an emergency hold should be put on the retirement accounts of everyone responsible.
Woe to the taxpayers.
The citizens of St. Mary’s are not stupid, though they have reelected Richard Fritz many times. Basically, the citizens are preoccupied and thought that after years of mismanaged by the damned fool Democrats, that putting in a Board of Republicans would be a good thing. The trouble is, all of them are former Democrats, who moved parties to put their spots on the same Leopard skin as the voters.
One final note. The one St. Mary’s County Administrator, who served in the past thirty years who was competent, was John Kachmar. Kachmar had called Commissioner Randy Guy to inquire as to whether he could provide consulting work for the county’s management problems. The call took place in January of 2015. Guy never called him back. It’s a shame too, because when Guy had a problem with an incompetent Zoning staffer with his pool business in 1996, he had turned to Kachmar to straighten it out. Kachmar has other clients and frankly when he learns about this mess, he will likely be sure not to return any call from Commissioner President Randy Guy.
Note the following news stories about actions of St. Mary’s officials in recent years in regards to permitting issues and article about permit-connected scandals around America.
St. Mary’s Board Notes Retirement of Human Resources Chief Sue Sabo;
Responsible for Posting Brian Taylor in Key Role in Code Office
Leonardtown, MD – At their first business meeting of 2016, the Commissioners of St. Mary’s County paused to bid farewell to the county’s Chief of Staff and Human Resources Director Sue Sabo.
Sabo began her employment with St. Mary’s County on June 13, 2005. During her tenure as Director of Human Resources, she served as Acting County Administrator on two occasions (March 28 – August 7, 2011, and November 20, 2013 – May 8, 2013). On May 8, 2013, her title was changed to Chief of Staff/Director of Human Resources.
“Your knowledge has been invaluable to this new group of commissioners,” said Commissioner Tom Jarboe (1st district) while presiding over the ceremony. “We thank you for your years of hard work and dedication to the employees of county government and the citizens of St. Mary’s County.”
The commissioners presented Sabo with a proclamation and retirement gift. Her retirement is effective on January 8, 2016.
St. Mary’s Commissioners Proclaim Financial Literacy Month
Leonardtown, MD – With financial literacy an essential component to ensuring citizens are prepared to manage money, credit, investments and debt, the Commissioners of St. Mary’s County proclaimed April 2016 as Financial Literacy Month in the county.
Students from Chopticon High School’s National Academy of Finance were on hand to receive the proclamation. The group appears before the commissioners annually to highlight the importance of financial literacy across the entire community.
“It is everyone’s responsibility to take charge of money, to control debt, and to realize the importance of saving,” said Commissioner John O’Connor (3rd District). “Local organizations and schools, provide support for financial literacy education to encourage members of the community to make effective decisions regarding the use and management of money.”
Commissioner Cindy Jones against hanging new rules on Harry Homeowner installing his own dishwasher
The Baynet published this report in 2011
Proposed Plumbing Test Draws Criticism
Posted On 10/20/2011
Should someone in St. Mary’s County doing plumbing work in their own home be required to take a test to show they know what they are doing? That very idea is included in proposed changes in the county’s Plumbing and Fuel Gas Code now under consideration.
A public hearing was held Tuesday by the St. Mary’s County Commissioners to consider updating the code from a national 2006 standard to the latest 2009 edition. The proposal, however, also contains the suggestion by the St. Mary’s County Plumbing and Fuel Gas Board to require the person doing the work, such as installing a dishwasher in their home, to appear at one of their monthly meetings and take a test.
Currently and in the new regulations, after the work is done it would have to be inspected by the contract agency (MDIA) hired by the county to do such inspections.
The proposal for the test was not well received by several commissioners. Commissioner Cynthia Jones (R: 1st) wanted to know what the existing problem was that would be addressed by requiring a test and someone getting 70 percent on the test to get a permit to do the work
In response Board Secretary Dwight Mason, a licensed plumber explained that it was a public health and safety issue. He said the proposal wasn’t going after the individual homeowner doing a small job, but a homeowner who applies for the permit to do the work and then has some other unlicensed individuals do it to save money.
Jones still wasn’t convinced that a test would solve that problem. She also expressed concern that the test would add an administrative burden on an already stressed Office of Land Use and Growth Management (LUGM) although Deputy Code Officer Brian Taylor said that would not be the case.
LUGM Permits Coordinator Harry Knight disagreed with Taylor. “It adds a layer of bureaucracy that might dissuade people from doing it (apply for a permit),” he said.
No one testified at the public hearing, and the commissioners left the record open for ten days before making a decision.
Building Code Appeals Board – has five members with three positions vacant, no salaries are paid. Current members: GERALD BUCKLER, ADAM STIFFLER.
According to the St., Mary’s County website the duties are: To hear citizen’s appeals of the code official decisions. Over the years since its creation, the purpose of the Board has been expanded to include a review of the updated building codes as they are published.
AGENDA (set by Brian Taylor)
3:00 P.M. until 4:00 P.M. Wednesday, February 4, February 18, and March 4, 2015
St. Mary’s County Governmental Center
Patuxent Building Public Meeting Room
Located at 23150 Leonard Hall Drive, Leonardtown, Maryland
- Call to Order
- Review adoption of the 2015 IBC, IRC, IECC, and IMC
For more information, contact Brian Taylor, Department of Land Use and Growth Management at (301) 475-4200, X-1582 or at email@example.com
According to Carroll County Times, Brian Taylor was one of nearly three dozen St. Mary’s County attendees for the Open Meetings Act training which were published on Feb.4, 2015.
St. Mary’s County Board of Code Appeals Brian Taylor
Brian Taylor lists his employment on his Facebook page as Deane Guy Masonry, Leonardtown, Md., as of May 6, 2016.
From Maryland Manual
Shelia Smith, Office Manager (301) 475-4200, ext. 1503
Jeffrey Jackman, Senior Planner (301) 475-4200, ext. 1541
Robert E. Bowles, Planner (301) 475-4200, ext. 1522
INSPECTIONS & ENFORCEMENT
Brian Taylor, Deputy Code Official & Code Coordinator (301) 475-4200, ext. 1582
Harry E. Knight, Coordinator (301) 475-4200, ext. 1560
Yvonne Chaillet, Zoning Administrator (301) 475-4200, ext. 1523
Land Use & Growth Management
Department of Land Use and Growth Management Phillip J. Shire Director
William B. Hunt Deputy Director
Jeffrey Jackman Comprehensive Planning
Robert Bowles Development Services
Yvonne Chaillet Zoning Administration
Harry Knight Permits
Brian Taylor Inspections & Compliance
Shelia Smith Administration Services
As of May 5, 2016, St. Mary’s County Government now lists the position held by Brian Taylor as VACANT
INSPECTIONS & COMPLIANCE
301-475-4200 ext. *1582
Inspections & Compliance
Brian Taylor Code Coordinator
Inspections & Compliance
Brian Taylor – Code Coordinator
Valerie Joshway – Inspections Coordinator
George Thompson – Inspector III
Jackie Alvey – Inspector II
Pat Arnold – Inspector II
Larry Eberhard – Inspector II
Phone: 301-475-4200 ext. 1580
The primary function of the Inspections and Compliance Division is to verify and gain compliance with all currently adopted St. Mary’s County Codes and Ordinances.
Oversee third party agencies that conduct inspections for Building, Plumbing, Electric, Fuel Gas, and Stormwater Management.
Remember… We’re not here to beat you up and take your money, we’re here to educate and gain compliance for the health and safety of the citizens of St. Mary’s County.
Purpose of the Permits Division
- Permits authorize “development” (the use of land, the construction and occupancy of buildings and
- Permits are processed at the request of a home or a property owner, business, non-profit, developer, or
- Permits are “approved” when the proposed“development” conforms to the regulations.
Functions of the Permits Division
- The principal function is to process permit applications.
- There are more than 40 different types of permit applications to be processed.
- There are 18 different agencies or divisions thereof that need to be coordinated with depending on the
type of permit application.
- An average of 2,200 applications per year.
Functions of the Permits Division
- Collection of application, review and permit fees for 7 different agencies: Land Use & Growth
Management, Public Works & Transportation,
Recreation & Parks, Board of Electrical Examiners,
Environmental Health, Soil Conservation, and the Metropolitan Commission.
- Fees are collected into 83 separate accounts.
- An average of 4.9 million dollars of fees are collected and deposited each year.
Functions of the Permits Division
- Stormwater Management plan review of residential
- Support Staff to the Board of Electrical Examiners.
- Weekly, monthly, and annual reports of total fees
- Consult with public in person at the LUGM office,
over the phone, and via e-mail.
Permit ‘expediter’ Jen jailed on fraud charges
Thursday, August 5, 2010
An unlicensed civil engineer and notorious San Francisco permit “expediter” faces more than 200 felony charges for allegedly creating bogus documentation for about 100 construction projects in the city, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Jimmy Jen, 56, who has repeatedly been cited for violating building codes, was allegedly involved in “massive fraud” over two decades, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris said during a news conference.
He was jailed on $50 million bail following his arrest on Tuesday and is expected to be arraigned Friday on 232 separate felony counts. Harris said Jen is considered a flight risk.
Jen’s employee, Jian Min Fong, was being held on nearly $2.3 million bail on charges that he was involved in the scheme, which raised questions among prosecutors about the city’s approval process.
A former plan checker for the city of San Francisco, Jen was well known in construction circles for his ability to push permits through building inspectors and for his close friendship with the agency’s former deputy director, Jim Hutchinson, who left the post in 2005. MORE
City of Chicago Building Inspector Charged with Demanding Bribe from Property Owner in Exchange for Allowing Renovations Without a Permit
CHICAGO — A building inspector for the City of Chicago was arrested April 5, 2016, for allegedly demanding a $300 bribe from a property owner in exchange for allowing renovation work without a permit.
ROBERTO URIBE, 55, of Chicago, is charged with attempted extortion for soliciting the bribe from an owner of a two-story building in Chicago, according to a criminal complaint and affidavit filed in U.S. District Court. Unbeknownst to Uribe, the building owner was cooperating with federal authorities and had surreptitiously recorded the bribery demand.
In a recorded conversation on Nov. 9, 2015, Uribe allegedly boasted of his ability to shut down the renovation work unless the owner paid him $300. “What’s going to happen is, if we put a stop on it, it’s going to stop you for six months, seven months,” Uribe told the building owner, according to the complaint. “So now, what’s happening now is you’re gonna give me some appreciation, and you’re gonna hurry up and get this done. And that appreciation is gonna be $300.
Now how quickly can you get me my money to keep my mouth shut?”
Federal authorities arrested Uribe this morning. He was released on a personal appearance bond after an initial hearing this afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan in Chicago. A status hearing is scheduled for April 26, 2016, at 1:15 p.m.
The attempted extortion charge is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The arrest was announced by Zachary T. Fardon, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois; Michael J. Anderson, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Chicago Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and Joseph M. Ferguson, Inspector General for the City of Chicago.
Uribe is employed as a Building/Construction Inspector for the City of Chicago Department of Buildings, which enforces the permitting and inspection requirements of the Chicago Building Code. According to the complaint, Uribe initially approached workers performing renovations at the building and asked if they had a permit to work on the front window façade. The workers put Uribe in touch with the building owner, who met with Uribe and learned of the bribery solicitation.
Uribe allegedly told the owner that paying a bribe to avoid a permit would save money and benefit both of them. “This here will stop you for six months and it’ll cost you starting at $3,500 for an architect and plans,” Uribe told the owner in a recorded conversation, according to the complaint. “I’m looking out for you, we’re looking out for each other.”
The public is reminded that a complaint is not evidence of guilt. The defendant is presumed innocent and is entitled to a fair trial at which the government has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If convicted, the Court must impose a reasonable sentence under federal statutes and the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker.
From Miami New Times:
Code officer in Miami part of city’s massive corruption;
selling permits was a part-time hustle
Dawn was still streaking the sky over South Beach when FBI agents silently surrounded the art deco fire station on Jefferson Avenue. For months, they’d been watching a small, dapper firefighter named Chai Footman as he accepted more than $7,500 in cash and free drinks to protect popular nightclub Dolce. Now, as joggers from Flamingo Park stopped to gawk, the feds swarmed the station, grabbing Footman by his suspenders and throwing him into a squad car.
The strange scene repeated itself a half-dozen times that April 2012 morning, as the FBI arrested six other city employees ensnared in the nine-month anti-corruption sting. Also booked was another firefighter, Henry Bryant, who’d betrayed his badge by smuggling what he thought were kilos of cocaine for envelopes of cash.
The chief target was Jose Alberto, the city’s lead code compliance officer, who threatened hefty code violations to blackmail businesses out of tens of thousands of dollars. The feds nabbed four of Alberto’s underlings too.
The arrests landed like a mortar in Miami Beach, a city already carpet-bombed by decades of corruption, and things have only gotten worse since City Manager Jorge Gonzalez resigned over the scandal. A bad cop was rehired despite beating up gay tourists. Miami Beach procurement director Gus Lopez was busted on 63 charges of demanding bribes for fixing contracts. Even Gonzalez’s resignation was soured when taxpayers realized they owed him half a million dollars in severance.
By now, graft in this island city seems as endemic as sea oats. Brisk business, booming development, and a steady stream of tourism have so swollen the coffers that corruption appears almost inescapable. MORE
House flippers often skip city permits
There’s a surge in Bay Area homes being remodeled, as run-down foreclosures find new owners. Some of those new owners are house flippers, whose goals are to fix up and resell a property as quickly as possible. That can mean cutting corners by skipping permits and inspections for the renovations, city building officials say.
“Time is money when you’re flipping a house,” said Dan Marks, Vallejo’s interim economic development director. “Especially in this crazy market when we have no idea how long this (house-buying) frenzy will last. Timing is critical for these guys, and going through the permit process takes time.”
Holding the bag
Short-staffed building departments throughout the region said they rely on complaints from neighbors to catch unpermitted work in process, although inspectors keep an eye out when they’re driving through town.
While non-permitted work is a perennial issue for cities, the sheer volume of dilapidated properties changing hands in recent years has spurred a big increase in unpermitted work, building officials say. The fallout can include slipshod construction standards, big headaches for new owners, and loss of revenue for cities. The problem is big enough that Oakland passed an ordinance requiring investors to register properties and comply with city rehab codes.
“With the volume of (remodeling) work increasing as it is, I would expect work without permits to follow,” Ed Sweeney, San Francisco deputy director for permit services, said in an e-mail. “The developer who is flipping houses is under added pressure to bring a product to market. Since the work being performed is interior … a sense of security is there” about not being caught.
“The house flipping is still going on here and we still find some in our travels performing inspections,” Gary West, Vallejo’s chief building official, said in an e-mail. “We have found contractors performing substandard work and converting unoccupied areas to living spaces. The new property owner is left holding the bag on getting the work legalized, which is sometimes a problem or not allowed.”
One contractor was found working on 12 different homes with no permits, he said. In another case, an addition to a home had to be removed because it encroached on the house’s front “setback” area, even though a recent purchase had included that square footage as part of the home’s value.
Jeff Lerman, a real estate lawyer in San Rafael, said he recently bought a Tiburon duplex from a flipper as an investment property. It had kitchen and bathroom updates that had been done without permits – but the seller disclosed that, as is required in real estate transactions. In negotiating the purchase price, Lerman factored in the cost of bringing the property up to code, and was able to work with the city after he bought it to bring it into compliance.
“A seller has the express obligation to disclose where there is any work that was not permitted as part of the transfer disclosure statement that is statutorily required in every sale of a one- to four-unit property in California,” he said. Sellers who fail to disclose unpermitted work leave themselves open to fraud claims by the new buyer.
But suppose the seller does disclose the unpermitted work? “Then the risk is shifted to the buyer,” Lerman said. “As long as the seller wasn’t concealing anything, the seller’s hands are clean.”
A new owner who knowingly buys a property with unpermitted work “is responsible for any code violations should a complaint be made and an inspector find work without permit,” said William Strawn, a spokesman for the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection. “The new owner would then be responsible for obtaining the permits to legalize the earlier work.” MORE
A DREAM HOME BECOMES A NIGHTMARE
FROM WAMU RADIO –
With their first child on the way, Stuart Crampton and his wife Violeta Roman were looking for a place to call their own.
In early 2011, they thought they had found it – a three-bedroom rowhouse on the northern fringe of Columbia Heights, the type of house that would offer the space they wanted for their growing family and a chance to move into a neighborhood that had emerged as one of D.C.’s hottest.
Crampton and Roman sitting in their house in May 2011, two months after they bought it. Their daughter, Ama, was born the next month. (Photo courtesy of Stuart Crampton)
The 100-year-old house had been fully gutted and renovated, with new bamboo floors, a finished basement that could easily double as a play area or bedroom for visiting family, an open-concept kitchen and living room on the main floor, and a new deck off of the rear of the house.
On March 24 of that year, they signed the final paperwork for 1367 Perry Place NW. They paid $540,000.
“We signed on the dotted line after doing a home inspection, and we were real excited to start in the new house,” says Crampton, 38, who works for the federal government. “We did have a lot of optimism, we were thrilled. The whole dream house idea, that’s what we were pursuing, and happy to live in D.C.”
Their first few months in the house were uneventful and content. In a photograph taken in May — a month before their daughter was born — Crampton sits beside Roman in their living room. He’s reading the Mayo Clinic’s “Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy,” and jokingly has a mug propped on her pregnant belly.
But things started taking a turn in August.
“There was this bizarre earthquake that happened in the D.C. area. Out on the porch, the front porch, the casing for the porch kind of fell down partly a good three feet, kind of came detached from the roof line. We were like, ‘OK, the earthquake did some damage,’” says Crampton.
They called their insurance company, but an agent who came to inspect the damage had bad news.
“He said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, this can’t be covered.’ And we said, ‘What do you mean this can’t be covered? An earthquake just hit.’ And he said, ‘No, this isn’t from the earthquake, this is from neglect. This is all rot in here, this is all rotten wood,’” recalls Crampton. “We were sitting there scratching our heads, ‘How does our new house have rotten wood in the porch?’”
Such questions would lead them down a path of mounting problems with the house, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the developer and contractor responsible for it, and questions about how well D.C. has regulated the renovation of old properties during the city’s boom times.
And as they struggle to find answers, the house on Perry Place now stands empty.
A flipper’s habitat
Their story is a cautionary tale of home-buying in a hot real estate market, one in which developers quickly snatch up residential properties, renovate and sell them — often at a healthy profit. It’s also emblematic of a practice that has quickly spread in D.C. and elsewhere as real estate developers try to cash in on the city’s growth. In the nation’s capital, it’s happening too quickly for the city’s under-resourced regulatory agencies to keep up with, say some experts.
While many reputable developers and builders in D.C. call the process “renovating” or “rehabbing,” the practice of fixing up old, often dilapidated houses and reselling them at a profit is now more widely known as “flipping” — a term popularized by TV shows like HGTV’s Flip or Flop and Flipping the Block.
With home prices low during the waning years of the recession — and with D.C.’s population ticking up and its reputation as a staid government town being chipped away by the vibrancy of an emerging bar and restaurant scene — developers started purchasing single-family homes in emerging neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, the H Street NE corridor, Bloomingdale and Petworth.
“It seems like house flipping came late to Washington, D.C. It started in Phoenix and in some areas of California first, because prices hit bottom first in those areas. In D.C. there’s been this window of opportunity between low-priced housing stock and really high price appreciation over the past two years,” says Nela Richardson, the chief economist at Redfin, a national real estate brokerage. MORE
Kickback allegations spark building permits audit; probe says department flush with cash, falling behind goals (Update)
FROM CREATIVE LOAFING –
ATLANTA, GA. — Ask any contractor who adds an extension to your house about dealing with City Hall’s permitting office and, nine times out of 10, they’ll scoff and throw a wrench through a nearby window.
Whether warranted or not, the agency that gives workers the OK to construct new buildings or replace your water heater has earned a reputation as one of City Hall’s most frustrating places to visit. Mayor Kasim Reed revamped the permitting process during his first term. The city hiked fees in 2013 to help streamline permit requests — a move that was supposed to resolve some of those issues.
A new probe from Auditor Leslie Ward says the permit fees have generated lots of cash. But some applications in City Hall are not being processed faster. In fact, Ward says, they’re taking longer than before. In addition, the office lacks controls to prevent some staffer conflicts of interests.
The probe was initially spurred by allegations that the city’s Office of Buildings was accepting kickbacks. The city’s legal department is now investigating those claims. Ward’s team focused on whether the permitting office’s practices comply with city and ethical codes.
After the city increased the cost of building permit fees to “streamline permitting and speed service,” audit investigators found, the Office of Buildings had accumulated an eye-popping $28 million surplus in a standalone fund that can only be spent on permitting.
That amount “could fund current operations for nearly three years,” Ward says in a letter to accompanying the report. “We have no explanation for why the fee increase was proposed and adopted without a cost-of-service analysis, actions that could be inconsistent with state law.”
Inspectors are quick to approve permits for electrical, plumbing, and mechanical permits — the bulk of the department’s caseload — but general building permits lag behind goals, the audit found.
“The office’s goal is to issue most types of general building permits within 10 to 15 days of application acceptance,” the reports says, noting the office excludes time contractors spend revising or resubmitting applications. “The overall median time to issue general building permits was 41 workdays in FY 2013 and 51 workdays in FY 2014.”
The report also says the department needs to rotate inspectors to prevent staffer conflicts of interest. According to Ward’s audit, department managers informed investigators that officials rotate inspectors, who are assigned geographic zones, to different areas in the city once a year. Inspectors told Ward’s team that they had not been rotated, however.
Staffers are also able to override the department’s technology to process permits even if fees remain uncollected, the audit says. MORE
What is the real cost of failing to get a building permit?
The case of the missing “weep screeds” almost brought a San Clemente couple to tears.
They were in the process of selling their house for $735,000 last June when the buyer’s home inspector discovered that the cement deck in their “exotically designed” tropical back yard covered the trim that allows moisture to drain from the home’s stucco walls. Those “weep screeds” are needed to keep the walls from crumbling.
The couple’s contractor had failed to get building permits when he installed a new back yard spa, grotto, waterfall and the aforementioned “Boulderscape” cement deck.
The buyer insisted that the problem be fixed. But at what cost? And who would pay for it? The owners had an offer to buy another house, provided they could sell their San Clemente home first. “It was causing a lot of anxiety and sleepless nights,” said Karen Conley, the Keller Williams agent who represented the home’s sellers.
Finally, the logjam broke when the contractor agreed to replace a portion of the offending concrete with flower beds — for free.
Out of ignorance or a desire to save money, Southern California homeowners often have repairs or improvements done to their property without getting the required building permits.
Sometimes, it’s no big deal. But sometimes those decisions come back to haunt them.
Buyers balk or demand a price cut. Lenders refuse to fund a mortgage. And if the issue slips past lenders, appraisers, home inspectors and escrow officers during a sale, buyers can sue the sellers for not disclosing any defects beforehand.
“We’ve had (permit problems) kill deals before, and we’ve had them almost kill deals,” said agent Mac Mackenzie of Coldwell Banker in Irvine. “If it’s serious enough, it can stop a transaction from closing.”