Members of Columbia County’s Construction Advisory Board spent most of Thursday morning wrestling with a host of issues that have cropped up in recent months for the county’s construction community.
The group made progress on several measures that will affect the way homes are constructed and how subcontractors work. Topics discussed included everything from erosion control procedures to codes that regulate the length of driveways in certain residential developments.
First on the agenda was a $500 “late fee’ that was instituted in October, designed to discourage contractors from failing to apply for building permits before work begins.
Although the fee – roughly 10 times the standard permit fee – has only been enforced eight times since it began, board members expressed concerns that it wasn’t working out as intended.
“The original intent was to catch unscrupulous contractors -- illegal roofers and contractors that work after 5 p.m. and on weekends,” said board Chairman Mark Herbert.
In practice, it has been hit or miss. Board members cited at least one case in which a licensed contractor was performing emergency work after hours, when applying for a permit was not an option.
In another case, Jamie O’Neal said his company, Liberty Plumbing, was hit with the $500 fee on Jan. 24, when officials discovered he had failed to obtain a permit on a small remodeling job. O’Neal said the general contractor – who had a building permit – asked him to move some bathroom fixtures and he was in the process of applying for the permit when inspectors arrived. O’Neal said because of the nature of the business, sometimes subcontractors begin work before getting a permit, with the intention of applying for it within a day or two.
“Everybody knows that all the (subcontractors) have to get their permits before the final inspection, so it’s not really a problem,” he said. “It was kind of a slap in the face to be hit with this $500 fine that they are calling a ‘fee.’”
O’Neal said the fee cost more than the job itself.
Board members discussed Liberty Plumbing’s case, as well as others similar circumstances in which permits aren’t generally obtained before work begins. Ultimately, they agreed to ask the commission to approve changes to the way the rule was being enforced.
The board voted to recommend that to exempt subcontractors working on new residential contruction, since they work under a general contractor and their work will be inspected. They also voted to recommended that the fee be reduced to $250 for homeowners who fail to obtain permits, but only on the first offense. They also want the fee to be waived for licensed contractors doing emergency work who seek a permit within 72 hours.
On a related measure, the board voted to oppose a proposed change to an ordinance that requires homeowners to obtain workman’s compensation insurance for jobs they are supervising without a general contractor. The county has proposed waiving the requirement in cases when fewer than three people are employed for the work.
Board member Chris Bowles said he had looked into the issue and removing that requirement places the workers and homeowners at serious financial risk in the case of an accident.
He said most homeowners insurance policies provide very limited coverage and specifically exempt accidents involving work on the property. He said a catastrophic accident on a work site could easily result in a $1 million liability claim.
Board members agreed that property owners also are often misinformed about what they allowed to do according to state building codes.
“A lot of these homeowners are not aware of this or aware of the danger and the liablity,” Ken Richards said.
The board voted to recommend that commissioners keep the requirement in place and to begin a effort to educate county homeowners on the laws that apply to “do-it-yourself” remodeling and construction and how they can protect themselves from financial harm.