Unlawful use rule needs to die now

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners next month will host a public hearing on a land use amendment that will allow the county to begin withholding building permits again due to other uses on private property.

For the last eight years, the county has had a controversial flood plain ordinance whereby any property identified as potentially containing a non-conforming lower level enclosure couldn’t pull any permits unless the property owner submitted to a compliance inspection of the lower level enclosure.

That ordinance drew the wrath of property owners and contractors during its time on the county’s books.

Property owners, fearful of the county forcing them to tear out tens of thousands of dollars worth of home improvements even if in many cases they had been previously permitted, either hired unlicensed contractors who didn’t care about permits, or just didn’t do necessary work.

Because of distinct gaps and shortfalls in county record-keeping systems, often property owners had to tear out lower-level enclosures that had been permitted because the burden of proof was on the property owner.

Contractors lost a lot of work during the time the ordinance was on the books as people didn’t perform work or didn’t hire licensed contractors, sometimes even if the enclosures had no issues because on general principle property owners didn’t want to subject themselves to an intrusive inspection of their homes.

The state Legislature outlawed that program last year, and a collective sigh of relief was heard throughout the community.

Now the commission is debating a new ordinance that purports to withhold building permits from properties where an unlawful land use is known to exist.

We’re told by county staff that this isn’t a back door approach to do what the state outlawed last year and go after lower level enclosures in another fashion.

Just this month, the BOCC approved an ordinance that establishes a new inspection of lower level enclosures upon sale program. The program is specifically not targeted toward pursuing code enforcement proceedings against non-conforming lower level enclosures we’re told. But it does allow the county to identify every such enclosure, and by using the new unlawful language in this new proposal, lower level enclosures would be back to being a target when applying for building permits.

The way the ordinance was written prior to its planning commission unveiling Wednesday, it would do just that if staff was so inclined to interpret it that way.

But we’re told that the ordinance targets unlawful land uses, such as running a commercial enterprise from the home that isn’t authorized in that zoning district, or keeping a home office in a strictly residential zone, or perhaps running a vacation rental that isn’t authorized.

We’re told that staff will make changes so that the interpretation by overzealous plans examiners and reviewers can’t take an onerous turn against local property owners.

Regardless of the final outcome of the wording, this is a land use regulation that needs to be tossed in the proper receptacle once it gets to the county commission.

If the county knows of an unlawful use, it can pursue code enforcement today without the bludgeon of a withheld building permit.

County staff doesn’t need any more leverage against unsuspecting property owners, and the construction industry doesn’t need another reason for people to stop pulling permits to do work that needs to be done, and done in a way that ensures compliance to our strict building codes.

And we fear that, because our code enforcement system is based primarily on anonymous complaints, it will become a hammer against the home worker who takes in laundry, or the babysitter who makes ends meet by watching a few young children so others can work.

This is a proposal that is just plain no good for the homeowner.

And our BOCC should toss the proposal in the nearest round file when they see it for the first time next month.

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