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Dealing with inspectors and code officialsBy Jeremy Martin
If you follow my writings the last couple years, you have seen that I think relationships are important. There’s one relationship that I’ve not touched yet, and it’s one that contractors in general “love to hate.” Inspectors, code officials, zoning officers… whatever title they carry, there’s often little love lost here.
I had a similar attitude when I first entered the hardscape world. We absolutely had no desire to deal with permitting. Our contracts were written to say that we would handle utility locates, but it was the owner’s responsibility to obtain any required permits or HOA approvals.
In the mid 2000s, that was fine. Paver patios rarely needed a permit. Our method of checking for permit requirements? Place a utility locate ticket, and if the municipality called to ask about a permit, we’d deal with it then.
While that worked back then, but things were changing. In 2012, an inspector driving by a jobsite informed us we needed a permit. He said placing a PA One Call wasn’t enough. Permitting was handled through an entirely different department that needed to be contacted separately.
It was a Thursday, and he let us continue working as long as we had a permit application in by Monday. A similar situation played out on another project later that year.
In 2013 we began to encounter another level of permitting: stormwater. EPA was fining local municipalities for violating water pollution standards, and in turn municipalities were requiring stormwater management plans for any projects that added impervious surface area. Yes, there were exemptions ranging from 400 sf to 1,000 sf, but we still had to draw lot plans and document how much square footage we were adding.
Over the next few years, we began designing and installing increasingly complex projects. We found ourselves graduating from cookie cutter infiltration pits to custom stormwater management plans using permeable pavers. That required learning new terms, new documentation, new construction methods. And as our knowledge and experience grew, we found code officials really weren’t that difficult. It helped to speak their language, using terms they used.
Here are some lessons I learned along the way:
• Be professional and knowledgeableIt’s rare that I meet that stereotypical arrogant code official. Yes, I’ve encountered a couple, but generally I find it easy to deal with them. A thorough understanding of what you’re building and what codes would typically apply is helpful.
• Ask permission not forgivenessThe old adage that it’s “easier to ask forgiveness” doesn’t work so well. Ignoring permits entirely can burn your client later; many municipalities inspect homes before the title can be transferred and unapproved work may need to be removed.
If in doubt during the design phase, simply reach out to the appropriate person, typically a zoning or code officer. Sometimes engineers, stormwater officials and others are also involved. State what you’re trying to build, and ask what codes apply and which permits may be required.
Ask questions like: What is the setback from property lines for a patio? At what height is a retaining wall required to be engineered? What is the setback for a wood-burning fire pit? At what threshold is stormwater management required?
• Utilize professional drawingsWe rarely get questions on permit applications. I credit that partially to using only 2D scaled CAD drawings of properties rather than marked-up Google images. Lot boundaries are shown, setbacks from the structure to the boundaries, square footage of the patio, distance of fire feature from combustible materials, etc. are all documented.
• Supply more information than requestedI want to flood code officials with more than required so they don’t question nitty gritty details. If we’re building a retaining wall that doesn’t require engineering, we still include product information along with the type of base we’re installing. If we’re installing a permeable system, we thoroughly document the infiltration rates for the joint material being used as well as the void space of the pavers.
If we’re installing a gas fire feature, we include the spec page that shows the setbacks from combustible materials. If we’re building a structure such as a deck, pavilion or pergola, it’s helpful to supply framing information and drawings. In most cases we’re using a kit with great documentation, or a fully customized structure attached to the home that’s been stamped by an engineer.
• Know when to hold them and when to fold themBe confident but courteous. Many code officials really don’t understand what we’re building or how to test proper installation. I’ve backed a few code officials down when they were being unreasonable or didn’t understand what we were building.
In one example, we were replacing a failing CMU wall in a municipality notorious for its stringent code officials. It was a 25’ long wall starting at 6’ tall and ending at 18”. The official asked for it to be engineered; I explained how we were overbuilding it, replacing an existing structure, and exceeding 4’ in height for only 5 to 6 linear feet. He acquiesced!
Another time, we were removing existing pavement and replacing it with an expanded paver area. We weren’t exceeding the exemption for stormwater management with the increase in surface area; however, this town didn’t give credit for removing existing surface and treated it as all new pavement.
I explained we could do an infiltration pit, rain garden, or permeable pavement and that I would discuss all 3 options with the client. In case we used the latter, I asked, what was the required infiltration rate through the pavers and the minimum amount of water we needed to store? He didn’t know, despite being in the stormwater department!
I asked for more clarification and where to find answers, and he said, “Just go build it, I’m going to approve it.” It was obvious that I knew more than he did, and it was easier to just approve it.
One more story… it was a simple patio project on a large rural property. The township’s engineer said we needed stormwater management. I said, no, we haven’t exceeded the exemptions. Oh, he said, that’s intended for free standing structures where water can sheet off on all sides, and your patio is attached to the house.
I thoroughly read through the stormwater code, couldn’t find anything to back up his statement and relayed this to the client.
Unbeknownst to me, my client happened to do stormwater management for a nearby municipality. She too could find nothing in the code, and called up the engineer. She asked him to cite which part of the code he was referencing. Um, ah, well, er… he had to admit it wasn’t there! Project approved.
So in conclusion… know your local codes, and treat code officials as professionally as your clients, and they’ll usually reciprocate.
Jeremy Martin co-founded Willow Gates Landscaping in 2005. He became an ICPI instructor in 2016, NCMA in 2018. He also founded Dust Killer Tools to help his company meet 2017 OSHA silica standards. Email Jeremy@DustKiller.tools. Visit WillowGatesLandscaping.com and DustKiller.tools