Property Rights

Plan To Build On Your Own Land? That's Going To Cost You.

Limits on property rights are where control freakery meets extortion


Pete Nelson builds treehouses—big ones, for grownups. It's a sufficiently imagination-capturing business that the Washington-based builder landed his own show on Animal Planet. In a 2013 interview with Land8, a landscape architecture site, Nelson described the specific engineering challenges and building techniques peculiar to his small industry. Putting durable structures up in trees is pretty specialized stuff, and he's one of the few experts in the field.

"It is hard to convince the powers that be that a certain tree can withstand the weight of a substantial structure," Nelson told Land8, speaking of the knowledge gap between specialized builders like himself and the regulators who don't understand the work he's doing. Not that Oregon bureaucrats give a damn. On November 30, the state Construction Contractors Board boasted that it fined him "$5,000 for working without a license while building a single-family tree house in a Sitka spruce in Neskowin."

That was after slapping Nelson with $1,000 in penalties in 2014. They also hit him, for good measure, for constructing arborial dwelling without building permits.

At least Pete Nelson is a businessman getting paid to baffle government paper-pushers. Do-it-yourselfers have fewer resources to fall back on when running the official gauntlet.

New Brunswick's late Craig Morrison found out how hard it is to get inspectors to put down the rule book when he decided to build a smaller house for himself and his ailing wife on their acreage. Fully competent to do his own work – he'd already constructed four houses – Morrison simply ignored the red tape that ensnares property use across North America and put the place up himself, even ripping his own lumber.

Local inspectors went to war, threatening to tear the house down and imprison the DIYer for building on his own property without permission.

Ultimately a local judge gave Morrison the win, announcing, "I'm not going to order a 91-year-old man to jail and have his wife placed in a nursing home."

The 2013 movie Still Mine, featured James Cromwell as the elderly individualist fighting for his rare victory over planners and inspectors. But few of us are lucky enough to win a cinema-worthy victory over bureaucrats.

In preparation for putting their house up for sale, Dean and Marsha Frease, of Corvallis, Oregon, made the mistake of fessing up to the city that they'd had unpermitted work done on a cottage on the property. City officials responded by forcing the demolition of the small structure while poring over the entire property in search of violations. Given the detailed rules and the fine-tooth nature of the scrutiny, officials inevitably found what they sought—some of the violations involving the city's own failure to perform final inspections decades ago, with the costs to be borne by the Freases.

"They didn't do a final inspection on something that's 40 years old?" notes former Corvallis building plan inspector Bill Clemens, who says the city is infamously rigid and should back off. "Well, I'm sorry, but who cares?"

Officials offended that somebody bypassed them obviously care. Enough to stick the Freases with about $100,000 in expenses.

Corvallis officials aren't alone in bringing allegations of long-ago violations back from the dead. Elliott Feiner received a letter from Sarasota County, Florida, officials objecting that the final inspection on his swimming pool hadn't been performed—after a 16-year delay. When a local newspaper columnist looked into the case, he discovered that the county was sending out hundreds of letter about ancient permitting concerns dredged from its databases. In many cases, the violations seem to exist only in county computers' faulty electronic memory. Officials' recordkeeping had been spotty at best, but that didn't stop them from trying to claim the $7 million in uncollected fees they thought they were due.

Money is a big driver behind permitting hassles—that, and the urge to control. The Orange County Register rightfully described as "extortion" demands by Carslbad, California, that property owners pay enormous fees or else surrender the right to vote on assessments in return for permission to build. That community wasn't the only to tie outrageous demands to the "privilege" of using private property (though some courts have since drawn the line at extinguishing voting rights). After Arizona voters strengthened the state's property rights, some cities began requiring property owners to waive their rights as the price for approving projects.

Sometimes the arm-twisting is more explicitly crude, such as when John Cleveland Brown, a Clinton, Maryland, building inspector demanded a restaurant "hire" his band for $1,000 per week or else the owners would suffer permit trouble. Kim Davis and Billie Muhammed, officials with the East Orange, New Jersey, city government had a similar scheme, extracting cash payments from property owners in return for permission to build homes.

Compared to the byzantine rationales raised by officials to mug people and bludgeon them into submission, such blatant use of the power of the permitting process to extract personal gain is almost refreshingly honest in its open thuggery.

The U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to restrict some of the worst abuses in 2013, requiring that conditions on land use actually involve the property in question, and insisting there are outer limits to the fees governments can extract. But that still left a lot of room for bureaucratic hassles, imposed costs, and micromanaging of people's use of their own property. Nelson, the Freases, and Feiner and company have all suffered at the hands of officialdom in ways untouched by that ruling. So have the unwilling customers of Brown, Davis, and Muhammed.

So, if you plan to build a house—up in the trees, or down on the ground—or just have a little work done, keep your hand on your wallet and your eye on local officials. They may well insist you get their permission to undertake even a small project, and that permission could come with a big price tag.

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  1. I went through some of this in 2011 when I added on a new room to the house for the (then) baby. You know who to hire based on their connections to the city. You hire the right guy, and it goes “smoothly”. Otherwise, it takes more than a year for even basic work.

    And I’m still getting bills for retroactive assessments. Frowny face.

    1. In Oak Bay (the rich part of Victoria, BC, Canada) you need the local govt approval to cut branches of your trees. If you build, you have to enrect a zone of protection around Garry Oaks (huge old trees prone to dropping branches weighing hundreds of pounds). So when you’re taking out your permit, they ask whether you plan to do it yourself – in which case they drag out the permit process. Or you could hire the private contractor the municipal bureaucrat recommends, in which case you get greenlit right away.
      What a fkn scam.

  2. …John Cleveland Brown, a Clinton, Maryland, building inspector demanded a restaurant “hire” his band for $1,000 per week or else the owners would suffer permit trouble.

    He let the altruistic and pristine regulatory system down one last time.

  3. Kim Davis and Billie Muhammed, officials with the East Orange, New Jersey, city government had a similar scheme, extracting cash payments from property owners in return for permission to build homes.

    Wait, Kim Davis? Were they denying building permits to gay couples?

    1. She really gets around.

  4. You want to know what this is all about? Revenue.

    Building departments are often unique within municipal bureaucracies in that they often derive most all of their revenue from permitting and inspection fees. Add in impact fees and they are usually a revenue generator for the municipality. Like any other department, they spend what revenues they receive, otherwise how can they justify their continually increasing budget. So, when times are bad and revenues fall they seek out sources, such as old projects that were never permitted. Some cities have been known to compare arial photogrammy to verify that work was done without permits.

    Building codes are supposed to be about life safety. They are no longer that. When municipalities took over administration of the codes from the building professionals it became little more than a revenue and power generation source.

    1. Building codes are supposed to be about life safety. They are no longer that.

      I would go even further in both directions. They used to be about preventing catastrophic failure. Now, they’re about cronyism and protectionism on the premise of imagined/potential future risk(s).

      1. No question, ICC has people sitting around thinking about ways someone *might* be injured in a building. Not that it has ever happened in history, but it could. The result is an increasingly prescriptive and innovation stifling code.

        I can’t imagine how hard it must be to find a structural engineer who would put his seal on the strength of a standing tree.

        1. and it is both surprising and disgusting how much designers and producers of “construction products” and systems have managed to invent “stuff’ ,find a small market for it, then gradually invent more similar stuff, or extra stuff, or more extensive stuff, and eventually get it all mandated. I remember building in the days before Simpson Strong Ties had been invented. We built everything just fine, quickly and cheaply, and it held uo for.. decades. Half centuries, even. Now you can’t build a doghouse without spending hundreds on Simpson Tin devices. Do the houses last any longer? Don’t seem to…..

          1. The worst is the onsite sewage racket. I know of one gravity feed system in my area that I helped build to an engineer’s design 30 years ago.. No pumps, switches, etc. Water still ran downhill back then. It was spec’d for an given occupancy load but was quickly put into far heavier use… about 20 times rated. Guess what? The system has run perfectly for 25 years that I know of. But when I, in exaactly the same soil mass, wanted to redo MY septic system (had functioned well for fifty years) they told me it had to go to a “designed system, as we are not approving any gravity systems in the county any more”/ Then I found out why…. seems the designers, not content to make money designing them, got busy and figured out they needed also to BUILD them…. on the premise that homeowners (who can build, plumb, wire, their own dwellings) are too stupid to read a drawing and make so many runs of such length from here to there in white plastic pipe. Now homeowners are not only FORCED to use designed systems, (depend on pumps, switches, timers, other things that break often, and don’t run when the power is out) but cannot build them themselves but MUST hire “the professionals”. Bah. Thitry thousand dollars and a huge ugly mound out front with big white pipes sticking straight up and you can’t plant anything on it, all that just to flush the toilet. I guess water no longer runs downhill until you bribe it to cooperate.

            1. The worst is the onsite sewage racket.

              It’s all bad. I had a water main break 13 mo. ago. Replaced the old and failing lead with copper back to the Village’s B-box, which was embedded in the sidewalk. Permit for the work required $1000 bond to ensure the pad got put back in place. I should’ve known right then I was fucked (actually I should’ve known when the sidewalk came into play). Anyway, inspector OKs the line before backfilling and, on his way out, says they’ll mark the site for the next batch of concrete. When I said I’d take care of it and he politely, informed me that you can’t just replace a 4′ x 4′ square of the village’s sidewalk. Wouldn’t you know, there are two batch plants in the area that produce the mix (nothing special) and you have a minimum order of cubic yards in the $1500 range.

              Worse, because it’s a bond, they have to issue consecutive notices of seizure and then have a hearing. So, a water main ruptures and gets fixed in less than a week but a $50, 4′ x 4′ square of concrete that could be finished in a leisurely day of work has remained a gravel covered… depression for the last year and probably well into spring because safety and regulations.

          2. There’s some of that, and Simpson is a good example. However, we can make the legitimate argument that houses are stronger today. In analysis of structures after major events we’re learning quite a lot about the weaknesses of toenail framing vs. steel connectors. Yes, they can go too far, but using the products would be fine if specified by builders and designers rather than municipalities. They have the knowledge and experience to know where and when to use them.

            1. To continue the thought. I’m working on a project right now where it is physically impossible to provide code compliant plumbing vents. The solution is an air-admittance valve, but the code doesn’t allow it. It’s required to go through an expensive vetting process by the testing lab that is attached to the code agency. All this, despite the fact that it serves the intended purpose and is a non-life critical condition.

    2. Sadly, the vast majority of things are about revenue, my friend.

      1. Agreed, but, this is blatant commandeering of private property for the purposes of financing a government agency. If a private entity did this there would be a RICO prosecution.

  5. Government at all levels is purely a sinkhole of incompetence and corruption.

  6. Why is the cost of homebuilding so high? It’s not all about granite countertops, luxury bathrooms and formal entrances. Site permitting alone can get into four figures if you’re lucky enough to have a pond or stream nearby (nearby, not even on) your property.

    1. It’s gotten completely out of control. I wanted to put in a tank-less water heater a few years ago but the quotes I was getting where more than double the cost of the water heater, which aren’t cheap. So, after doing more digging I found out that the vast majority of the cost was in the permits for ‘modifying’ the gas line. And, like Pl?ya Manhattan was saying. Some of the contractors/plumbers talked about how they could get through the permitting process faster than the rest. Isn’t corruption awesome! I still have my old water heater by the way.

  7. My parents were selling the house I grew up in so they could move into a smaller home, but were getting some work done on the roof to improve the resale value. The roofer came by, dropped off the materials for the job in the driveway, then went off to city hall go get the required permits. Before he got back, there was a cease and desist order left on the pile of roofing shingles stating that the job could not begin without the proper permits.

    1. Scienfoology Song? GAWD = Government Almighty’s Wrath Delivers

      Government loves me, This I know,
      For the Government tells me so,
      Little ones to GAWD belong,
      We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      My Nannies tell me so!

      GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
      Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
      Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
      And gives me all that I might need!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      My Nannies tell me so!

      DEA, CIA, KGB,
      Our protectors, they will be,
      FBI, TSA, and FDA,
      With us, astride us, in every way!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      My Nannies tell me so!

      (Do NOT question your Nannies, or things MAY go badly for ye).

    2. That may have been a shakedown, the codes don’t require permits for re-roofing.

      1. where I live they sure do… homeowner/contractor can redo up to 500 square feet once per year without permit. Me? I just do it. Sit up there and bang the shilngles in place. Stupid people. Never used to have to get a permit to reroof. Unless you were doing structura, as in rafters. Even fixing sheeting was fine.

        1. Wow, is this a local amendment? I have to wonder, is a roofer the brother in law of someone in the building department?

      2. Where I lived before I’m fairly certain it was required. From my reading on the county website it appears as though it was required. This was in an unincorporated area even, though it was suburban.

        I know my neighbors wouldn’t have ratted me out so I didn’t bother and put the roof on myself without worrying about what the county might say. I figured to feign ignorance if someone actually did bitch. “WTF is a permit? I’ve never heard of that”

        Oddly enough I hired some foundation work done (straightening cinder-blocks, and installing a french drain) which being a very complex thing compared to a roof I would have expected a permit be needed. Nope. They initially were going to charge me a permitting fee but after they confirmed I was unincorporated they removed that fee.

    3. Permits to re-shingle your roof ! ?
      That’s fkn crazy.

  8. Was looking into buying a property in rural Missouri a few years ago, talking to the listing agent. Asked her “what type of zoning is it in? ZOning? What do you mean? Well, what will the government let me DO there? As in, what kinds of things? Well, supposing I wanted to build a 10,000 square foot warehouse? Well, its your property, isn’t it? Do what you want. If you want a big warehouse, build one. What about permits? What about permits? How hard is it to get one? Why do you need one? Doesn’t the county require a permit to build? Why would they do that? Its your property, your money, you’re not going to be so stupid as to build something dangerous, now, are you? No, of course not. then build what you want, how you want to build it. I said its your place……. I did some checking on the county’s website, she is correct. Was out that way last spring, hasn’t changed. I may well have to present myself and say SHOW ME how easy it is…..

    1. OMG, are you sure you don’t live in Somalia!?!

  9. Could we expect anything less from government and bureaucrats–civil masters rather than civil servants? Property tax means that a person actually rents his or her property from the government. Don’t pay the property tax and they will take it away from you. Ergo, you never really owned it in the first place. All the building codes are merely more proof that people cannot fully own their property.

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