08 Nov 2010

What It Takes To Build a House

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When I was a boy, in most parts of the United States outside the largest and most intensely regulated metropolitan areas, if you owned some land and wanted to build something, you could go right ahead and build it. Over the years, the empire of government has grown unceasingly, zoning regulations, infinitely detailed building codes, environmental regulations, and complex systems of permits and permissions have spread across America like kudzu.

Your tax dollars support what the Declaration of Independence referred to as “a multitude of New Offices, and… swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” Every one of those officials feels obligated to see to it that the American property owner conforms to every item and detail of the regulatory regime which represents the entire raison d’etre of his career and livelihood.

Roland Toy, at American Thinker, describes his own, perfectly typical encounter with the system Americans have enthusiastically created to protect them from themselves.

133 days earlier I had submitted plans for my house to the county building department. A month later, the department sent a letter explaining that the proposed septic system had to be relocated 60 feet to the east of a location the county had approved earlier. However, in recent months a bald eagle’s nest had been spotted in adjacent public lands, and the county now required a buffer between the nest and any development on my property. Fine. I had seen a bald eagle soaring overhead — once with something that looked like a small animal it its claws. Anything for the symbol of America. And the septic system relocation was less than trivial, a few steps in one direction in the midst of millions of acres of sandy wilderness that was already officially sanctioned for a septic system.

The problem arose when the relocation required a new permit application, complete with fresh paperwork, hefty fees, a two-week waiting period for public input, and a new soil study by a professional soil engineer on a county-approved list.

I called the man who had signed the letter and appealed to his common sense, to his engineering acumen, and finally to his decency. Any moron could see that the septic system could be nudged a few feet with zero environmental impact — the approved sand dune was the same whether 8′ or 80′ or 8000′ feet from the property line. What could possibly be accomplished by breathing life into a new bureaucratic tangle? But in the end, my entreaties failed and the conversation amounted to mutual declarations of war. I backed off when he began making vague references to a possible environmental assessment report. Thus began a slow-motion shell game in which a bureaucrat, after extracting an extortionate fee, transferred irrelevant paperwork from one file folder to another. Some highlights of that loony process ($2,831.00, 103 days) are shown below:

    * Submit plans to county ($450.00).

    * County disapproves plans, requires variance.

    * Variance request submitted ($125.00).

    * Request denied. New application and soil study required.

    * At an arbitration meeting ($250.00), the arbitrator rules for the county. Not technically a county employee, he’s on a chummy first-name basis with the county representatives.

    * Start new application ($125.00) and commission a second soil study ($1,350.00) by an engineer on the county-approved list .
    * Plan reviewers fail to show for a meeting. They’re at a ‘team-building’ retreat. In an unpleasant scene, two customer service representatives complain about my attitude after I tell them that for the non-meeting I had to drive 180 miles over winding mountain roads.

    * County approves new septic system location.

    * Craig makes site visit for percolation test ($541.00).

Back at the percolation test, all that was history. I understood it and wasn’t destined to repeat it. But Craig had been leafing through his papers for a long while. “Is there a problem?” I asked.

“Your soil engineer isn’t on the new approved list.”

“He’s gotta be there. You guys gave me his name.”

Craig pulled out his cell phone and spoke intently with his superiors. Eventually he hung up and said, “It’s probably nothing serious. But something’s screwy with the new list and I can’t do the inspection until the paperwork is right.”

“What’s the problem?”

“We’re not sure yet, but your engineer just isn’t on the list.”

“So you don’t know how long it’s going to take to fix or if it can be fixed?”

Craig muttered abjectly, “I’m sorry. I’m still on probation and they audit me.”

Like contentious litigation, every interaction with the building department had a tendency to take on an unpredictable life of its own. This was a moment of truth. God may have understood the SNAFU that had kept my engineer’s name off the list, but I didn’t. When does reasonable accommodation become craven appeasement? Would I continue working with the totalitarians who were polluting my life? Would I start another round of telephone tag, being stood up at meetings, preparing for rigged arbitrations, and paying the fees? Would I have to commission yet another soil assessment, the third one that would reiterate what everybody already knew? Or would I draw a line in the literal sand and rebel against the yoke of tyranny? A crazy image flashed through my mind. I was in the percolation test hole with a rifle, holding off swarms of g-men in bulletproof vests as helicopters and a lone bald eagle circled overhead.

3 Feedbacks on "What It Takes To Build a House"


I have a home in a small suburb (30,000) with a city government that is fairly well-run and staffed by people with very good intentions. A few years ago a developer want to take some otherwise useless land and build a Homewood Suites hotel. The city thought this a good idea and told him to go ahead. Two years later the developer ran out of money because he could not outlast the marathon of regulatory and inspection hurdles that the city threw at him over and over after building began. As a result the project sits half-completed and the city has foregone over $400,000 in tax revenue — at the same time they tell the taxpayers that they have to cut services for lack of funds. $400,000 is a lot of money in a town this size.

Maggie's Farm

Monday evening links…

All about Rubio, at Weekly Std.
Move over, Sarah. This guy’s the next big target.
Dino: …the Chinese have been laughing at this administration for quite a while now
Am Thinker: Time to Tackle Right to Work
A little credit to the RNC


My late mother had a farm in a Canadian province that will go nameless in the following anecdote. The farm house, when she bought it, was several years out of any regular use and after the first summer wherein there was again very little use, the septic system backed up. She found that the septic tank had essentially collapsed and the light use had allowed the pipe to the non-tank to function briefly in its stead. So she bought one of those “yellow submarine” fiberglass tanks and had it delivered to the farm. She then called a backhoe operator and said, “I need a hole right here.” He said, I can’t install a septic without a permit.” She said, “I’m not asking you install anything. I’m asking you to dig me a hole right here.” Which he did. Whereupon the general handyman who worked on the farm moved the empty tank into the hole, attached new piping and buried the tank.
It worked perfectly. And the permitting authorities never had any reason to know.
Not the same situation as your but I’ve long applauded my mother’s willingness to get things done.


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