Strictly following the code may be the trouble in permitting

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 28, 2012

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — Is there a problem with Rowan County’s inspections department?
It depends on who you ask.
Some local contractors and business owners say the county department is to blame for delayed projects, confused builders and expensive redesigns.
According to Dana Hart, the county’s recently dismissed director of the Building Codes Enforcement Department, the problem is that no one seems to care about following state law.
“In my opinion, there’s a rampant disregard for following building code in Rowan County and Salisbury,” Hart said. “When I got there, there was a backlog of things needing to be done and things that weren’t done right.”
During his two-year tenure, Hart said, the department kept its promise to get all initial plan reviews done within two weeks. But he said architects — who often didn’t know details of the code — would sometimes take months to make needed changes before bringing plans back to the county for review.
“It’s not building inspections that’s the cause of the problem,” he said.
Hart said he was fired June 11 because of a confrontation with County Manager Gary Page. He said Page told him to cut two specific people from his department, including plan reviewer Brian Goins, but Hart told him the director should be the one to choose who leaves.
Hart said county officials had been pressuring him to fire Goins for two years because of complaints they had heard about Goins.
Kerry Hall, director of public information for the N.C. Department of Insurance, said Thursday the state has “had a question or two” from contractors about Goins.
“But that’s not out of the ordinary,” Hall said. If those questions had led state officials to believe Goins or Hart were doing something wrong, “it probably would have led to a formal complaint, and we don’t have any formal complaints on file.”
Page has said he won’t comment on Hart’s dismissal until the former director has run out of time to appeal. He said Goins was laid off solely to save costs, and Page hasn’t received any complaints about him individually.
Page said he has gotten plenty of complaints, though, about the inspections department as a whole.
“I’ve had people say that the county inspections department is a stumbling block, that it makes things more difficult, and that it’s harder to do business in Rowan than in surrounding counties,” Page said. “But if we’re so difficult, how was it that Bojangles’ was able to tear its building down, reconfigure the lot and rebuild it within 120 days?”
He said the restaurant, which opened in May, was rebuilt by outside contractors who had no problems with the building codes enforcement department. In fact, he said, they thanked Rowan County for helping them move it along so quickly.
“Some people think because they’re local, they have influence, or they can have things sort of passed over,” Page said.
Hart said ignoring code violations can cause an inspector to lose his or her license.
The N.C. Code Officials Qualification Board, which issues licenses to building inspectors, can penalize them for gross negligence if they see violations and approve them anyway.
“There’s some architects who keep telling these business owners that there’s gray areas in the code, and there’s not,” Hart said.
He said the inspectors need to follow the law in order to keep people safe.
Page agreed that county inspectors can’t just choose not to enforce state requirements. He said the state does allow some leeway for interpretation, though.
As an example, he said inspectors are given different standards that they can apply to old and new construction.
“The intent is that you have a building that can be safely accessible and will do the job,” Page said.
But some contractors who say the county is inflexible, Page said, are asking the county to just let them do what they want in order to get a business open or a house built.
“I think it’s frustrating, because they’re out to make a buck. We’re out to help them do what they want, but also protect the citizens,” Page said. “A property owner has the right to know that their home was inspected by the county and built right to code in order to protect them.”
Page said he hopes the county’s next inspections director will have a philosophy that makes things easier for developers.
“I would hope we can find somebody who’s qualified, who’s open to interpretation of the code, but who’s not willing to compromise on the safety and welfare of the people,” Page said.
He pointed out that the next inspections director will be the fifth one hired in the past eight years.
“At some point, it’s not necessarily the department, it’s the expectation of the department and of that person,” he said.
Sometimes the issue comes down to personality or communication style, Page said. Some have complained that the department isn’t “customer-friendly” and doesn’t seem to want to help the developers.
“When you tell people ‘no,’ there’s kind of a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it,” Page said. “Some people felt that we were doing it the wrong way.”
A few weeks ago, Page said, the county did talk to someone who applied for the director’s job two years ago. County officials got back in touch with the person, and a panel including a local architect, a Salisbury city planner and the RowanWorks Economic Development director all sat in on the interview.
Page extended a job offer, but the applicant changed his mind and didn’t accept it. Now, the position has been posted publicly, and Page hopes to conduct more interviews with the same panel.
“Those other players added a different perspective,” Page said. “It gave me a better rounded view … and it let him know right off the gun that this isn’t just about the inspections department. We’re all in this together.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
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