City permits are more than permission slips, they come with inspection services that help guarantee a project is done properlyAfter a deck holding 30 party-goers collapsed outside a condominium in Texas last August, follow-up investigation revealed the deck had been rebuilt only months before, without a city permit or an inspection. Twenty-one people were injured when that deck fell, one broke his back. The news stories of the consequences of that deck failure – including injuries and legal action – serve as a cautionary tale for those who think building permits aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
After a deck holding 30 party-goers collapsed outside a condominium in Texas last August, follow-up investigation revealed the deck had been rebuilt only months before, without a city permit or an inspection. Twenty-one people were injured when that deck fell, one broke his back.
The news stories of the consequences of that deck failure – including injuries and legal action – serve as a cautionary tale for those who think building permits aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
“Permits are all based on safety,” said Laurie Anderson, Cloquet building department secretary, noting that accidents often trigger building code changes. “It isn’t to make money, it is truly for the consumer’s protection.”
Permits are required for structural construction or remodeling – including roofs, windows, floors, sheetrock and walls – Anderson explained. Permits listed on the city’s website also include permits for excavation, grading, lead paint abatement and storm water management as well as mechanical, electrical and plumbing work. Cosmetic work – such as cabinets, carpeting, wallpaper or painting – does not require a building permit.
In return for purchasing a building permit, the homeowner gets inspection services from the Cloquet building official and a site plan review, which will cover such issues as setback from property lines, proper zoning and allowed uses, green space requirements and more. There are also certain parts of town – downtown Cloquet and the Highway 33 corridor, for example – that have additional design standards that have to be met.
“It’s an investment in your building project,” said Gerald Manthey, Cloquet’s building official. “The first thing our office does is make sure the contractor is licensed and bonded. Once that’s established, things can move forward. But a contractor knows his/her work will be inspected in phases, so we can make sure it’s built to code, that there’s a satisfactory level of materials and that the job is completed in a reasonable period of time and is finalized out on inspection.”
Manthey said there are different types of inspections on a building project, depending on the phase of construction and the type of project. Ideally, city inspections will provide the homeowner with some guarantee that a project is done properly – before it collapses, like that deck in Texas.
“We’ve had situations where people [who didn’t get a permit before building] have had to tear something down and rebuild because it wasn’t built to code and wasn’t safe,” Manthey said. “You’d be surprised how often people do things without inquiring whether it’s appropriate or allowed.”
In the case of the Texas deck, both the homeowner and the contractor faced fines as well as possible lawsuits from the people who were injured.
In Cloquet and most other cities, if a contractor builds something without getting the required permit, he or she can face fines. However, Manthey and Anderson both stressed their department is more about protection than punishment, and they try to work with homeowners and contractors as much as they can.
In some cases – such as building permits for fences 2 ½ feet or higher in Cloquet – the consumer protection is less about safety and more about making sure homeowners, neighbors and the city all agree on the property line before a project is started. Manthey said people used to be able to erect fences up to six feet tall without a permit.
“But people would put the fence up where they assumed the property line was,” Manthey explained, “and it would end up being on the neighbor’s property and we would end up being the mediators.”
Fence permits have been required since Cloquet’s zoning code changed in 2009. Now people planning to put a fence 2 ½ feet or taller have to provide a site plan or have the property surveyed, so the city can make sure the fence is properly placed before the work begins.
“You’re allowed to put a fence on the property line if the neighbor agrees [that is the line] or, if there’s confusion, we suggest people build up to the line, not on it,” Manthey added.
The longtime building inspector is happy to offer pointers on different home improvement projects and explain why they require inspection.
Even knocking out a portion of a wall to create a window between a kitchen and dining room requires a permit, Manthey said, because such a project would need to have a header above the space to prevent possible collapse of the ceiling or roof.
While most contractors know local building requirements because they have to pass a test to get their license, Manthey said he likes to take the opportunity with homeowners to “direct people down the right path.”
“If they’ve never done something, like shingle a roof, I will get my book out and show them what they need to do,” Manthey said. “I can’t tell people how to design things, but I can give them instructions on application.”
“He’s got a wealth of information,” Anderson said. “And he’s happy to talk to people.”
Manthey said decks, roofs, fences and larger accessory structures are the most common projects that people fail to get a permit for. Building a deck might not seem like rocket science, but Manthey said there have been many injuries throughout the country caused by failed decks.
“The purpose of the building code is to make sure it’s built strong enough, to prevent that from happening,” he said.