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Building inspector to ticket violators

Building contractors who try to get away without applying for needed permits from the regional building inspector may find themselves in the same pickle as if they leave their truck parked out next to a fire hydrant.

The Franklin County Cooperative Building Inspections Program is stepping up its enforcement of building inspection requirements in the face of what Building Commissioner James Hawkins says seems like an increased tendency for people to violate the state building code.

The program, which had dealt with scofflaws by doubling the fee where they had found violations until its attorney advised that it constituted a fine, which can only be imposed by a judge, decided recently to apply state ticketing provisions that took effect in 2005.

“What we’re finding is that there are so many jobs going without permits, with builders and homeowners alike, that we have to do something,” said Hawkins, who admitted that it’s taken several years for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments program to begin ticketing as Greenfield has done for awhile, in part because until recently, there was no appeals officer in place ... and because he was reluctant to take serious action.

“Who wants to be a police officer?” he asked.

As it is, he emphasizes, “We don’t want to be too aggressive yet. We’ll start off with warnings. We’re not going to attack the homeowner. This is primarily for builders that are doing work without a permit. We’re not inclined to give homeowners a ticket. That’s not to that say if they keep doing it, after the first warning, we won’t issue a ticket.”

The main violations that Hawkins said his department will begin ticketing for include beginning work without a building permit; continuing work without calling for and receiving the appropriate inspection; or failing to submit amended plans to reflect a change in scope of work. Tickets, which come with a $100, $500 or $1,000 penalty for successive offenses, may also be issued for occupying a building without an appropriately issued certificate of occupancy.

“If they start work without a permit, or don’t have a permit at all, we are — under the law — allowed to give them a ticket now,” said Hawkins.

Even though permits start at $50 for simple improvements like roofing, siding or replacement windows, Hawkins said some contractors want to avoid the fee, don’t like having someone looking over their shoulder ... or see the fee as an oppressive tax.

“I’d say 80 percent of builders are great builders, but there’s a small percentage that doesn’t like to pull permits, and then they don’t build to code,” Hawkins.

“We find they prey on elderly people, where they’ll take the payments and run or just do a crappy job, like not putting footings 4 feet below grade, so a couple of years later the deck starts to heave up because it’s not properly built.”

In one case, a New Hampshire builder undercut a local contractor by a few thousand dollars on a $50,000 addition, and failed to call for an inspection after the job was done. Hawkins was called by the customer to complain about the work, which was not up to building code: ceiling heights were too low, stairway proportions were mixed up and there was no header to allow sliding doors to open properly after heavy snowfall. The customers wound up having to hire a local builder to fix the job, for another $50,000, which they could only partially recover after taking the original contractor to court.

“We see ourselves as public safety, protecting people from stuff like this,” Hawkins said. “We’re after the guys out there who are running around doing a lot of work without permits.”

The regional program, which is responsible for 16 towns, is constrained by not being able to trespass on property without a warrant, Hawkins said, and while it is legally obligated to enter a property if inspectors see work going on, long driveways and wooded properties can make that task more difficult.

Montague Building Inspector David Jensen said he doesn’t see scofflaws as a big problem in his town. When Jensen does find a violation, he said, he doesn’t issue tickets.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, I write them a short note or give them a phone call saying, ‘Where’s your permit?’” And that’s enough to fix the situation.

“It’s an irritation, not a major problem,” Jensen said.

Just the same, when it comes to do-it-yourselfers, Hawkins added, “Some people don’t want to get a permit, or they don’t think they need to. When I go over to Home Depot, they scatter because they recognize me.”

You can reach Richie Davis at:
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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