And We’re Off!

“Hey man, how’s your house coming along?  You moved in yet?”  When you start a blog that promises everybody in your friends list that you are about to get started on a construction project, you set yourself up for this question from just about everybody you run in to.  Unfortunately, I had to deal with an incredibly frustrating and expensive wait from the Union City Construction Department to get the construction permits finalized.  I had hoped to have permits done in March, 2016, which was a buffer of about three months from when I bought the house in December, 2015.  It wasn’t until October, just a few weeks ago, that I finally got permission to build the house from the city.

I didn’t intend to make this blog about dealing with city hall, but I guess it is part of the story so I’ll explain it as best as I can.  Honestly, the process dragged for so long that my memory is already kind of fuzzy on the subject.  But I can break down several reasons why it took over 10 months to get the permits, at least from what I can tell.

If the permit process doesn’t interest you, scroll down to “Project Start”.  If not, here are the three reasons that I believe it took so long.

Misunderstandings

My architect asked for a meeting with the construction officer at the beginning of the process to discuss the project.  The officer reviewed the drawings and noted that we were adding a third bedroom but only had two parking spaces.  He said that city zoning ordinance required a third parking spot if we were adding the third bedroom, but that he’d let it go and we’d get approved as-is.

This turned out to be a huge mistake on our part.  One of the biggest misunderstandings we had was the third parking space.  My architect took him at his word that we would be OK with just two parking spaces.  Turns out, we failed zoning review because of this.

We failed a few other times even after we re-submitted the drawings with the third parking space.  Despite the initial meeting my architect held with the construction officer, he still didn’t know exactly the level of detail they needed to see on the drawings.  It took quite some time to decipher what the city was asking of us and we had to re-submit the drawings several times.

Inefficient Processes

In all my years in the private sector, I’ve never seen a more inefficiently run business process than the Union City construction permit process.  It was shocking how long it took for them to perform the simplest of tasks.

At first, we had to submit for zoning review.  For inexplicable reasons, they didn’t ask for drawings at that time and we just had to fill out a form.  About a month later, we were given zoning approval, meaning that we were within code.

When that was done, we proceeded to submit the drawings.  Then the fun began.  A month later, the town failed the drawings for a multitude of reasons for building, fire, electric, and plumbing.  Even more maddening was that they revoked the zoning approval and didn’t tell us why, only saying that we needed to talk to the construction official to discuss.  I went with my architect to the meeting, and that was when we found out that we failed zoning due to the third parking spot.  At first, he didn’t even know why we failed, he had to call some guy from his mobile phone and ask him if he remembered why he failed us!

My architect had to add the third parking spot and re-submit the permit for zoning and the drawings again. A month later, we got zoning approved (and this turned out to be for good) but they failed the drawings again.  My architect had to meet with them again to understand why they failed us and had to do another drawing iteration, which cost us yet another month.

Sometime in August, someone from the building department called my architect and told him that we were about to get approved, pending some sort of fee calculation.  We thought we were ready to go any day.  Another bad assumption on our part.

I got a call at work from the building department (after really not talking to them directly at all throughout the process) and didn’t pick up the phone right away.  I called back just a few minutes later when I was free and the conversation went like this:

Me: Hi, did someone there call this number?

Union City: Yeah, we left you a voice mail.  You have to take care of the [inaudible] fee.

Me: I didn’t catch that, what do I have to do?

Union City: Check your voicemail! (click)

There was no voicemail on my phone.  While I sat there, bewildered, the phone rang and it was Union City again:

Union City: Your voicemail was full.  You need to take care of the [inaudible] fee.

Me: Could you please spell that?

Union City: C-O-A-H.  You have to pay the COAH fee.  Go online and send in the form. (click)

Before I go any further in the story, let me state for the record that my voicemail was not full.  Anyway, I googled COAH and didn’t come up with much.  I called my architect and he said that he had never heard of it either but he’d check it out.  A few minutes later, he sent over a form he found online, and asked me to print, sign, and scan it, and then send it back to him.  I did that as soon as I could and he said he’d drop it off the next day.

Then the wait began again.  Several weeks later, when my architect was on vacation, I called the city to see if the permits were ready to pick up.  The woman I spoke to told me that they were still waiting for the COAH form to be dropped off.  I told her it was there already but there was no arguing with her.  She told me I could fax it to her.  I said I don’t have a fax machine but I could e-mail her a copy.

I hung up, found the signed COAH form on my phone and immediately e-mailed it to her.  She replied right away in all caps: “THANK YOU FOR SENDING, BUT YOU NEED TO SEND IT TO THE TAX ASSSESSOR.”  Not sure why she didn’t tell me that on the phone, nor am I sure why she couldn’t just forward the e-mail to the dude herself, but I did what she said anyway.

The tax assessor was responsive when reached by phone.  He said that the COAH fee was a fee that the state made them charge because I was renovating the house.  It would be calculated based on the assessed value of the finished house.  As he promised, about seven days later, he came back with a handwritten form that said I had to pay a $2,300 COAH fee for the right to develop my property.  He promised to walk it up to the construction department right away.

This was not the best news I got all week, but at least the ball was rolling again.  I called the construction office and they told me that they had the COAH form and the permits were back under review with no ETA for completion.  I pleaded my case and told her that the COAH process alone had gone on for over a month and asked that they kindly wrap things up as soon as possible.  She said that there was no ETA for completion.

I called the following Tuesday to politely ask if there was anything else they needed from me.  The woman on the other end said “You are still under review, we’ll let you know when it is done!” and hung up the phone.  I started to think that these people really hate their jobs, their lives, and the general public.

My architect stopped by a week after that and asked if they were done.  After a few moments, they said to him “We need the COAH form.”  I think at this point, he was wondering if Alan Funt was about to run in to the room and tell him that he was on Candid Camera.  Either way, he somehow managed to convince her that it was on top of the pile and that they did indeed have the forms.

A week later, about 7 weeks after the COAH form process started, and about 8 months after the permit process began, they called my contractor to tell him that the permits were done and we could pick them up for a total price of $9,200, inclusive of the COAH fee.

Sheer Incompetence

Friends and family gave me all kinds of useless advice during the process.  Their hearts were in the right place, but there was really no way any of it would work.  Some examples:

  • Hire a Cuban lawyer and have him take them to court.
  • It’s Jersey, bro! Bring an envelope full of cash!
  • Call the mayor and complain.
  • Call them more often and politely ask them to move the form along.

The reason that none of this common sense advice was going to work is because the people who work in the construction office in Union City are terrible at their jobs!  They push paper all day and barely use computers.  Almost everything they do is still handwritten.  They are late or don’t show up for their own appointments.  They have no interpersonal skills.  What good would it have done to bribe someone if it still would have taken them weeks just to do the math for the permits?  What’s the mayor going to do, review the zoning himself?

Some of my favorite examples of their utter incompetence:

  • I visited the house on July 6 to check the mail. There were two letters from the city, both had handwritten address lines.
    • The first envelope was post-marked July 1 and it was made out to a Hispanic variation of my first name. Inside, the letter was dated May 28.  I guess it took them 6 weeks to handwrite the envelope to the wrong name.
    • The second envelope was post-marked July 2. It was made out to “Pavel Rodenski” at my address.  Inside, the letter was dated July 1 (they’re getting better at sending mail quickly) and it was also made out to “Pavel Rodenski”.  I keep this blog semi-anonymous, but I can assure you that Pavel Rodenski doesn’t even resemble my real name.
  • Their inability to just take care of the COAH form was very frustrating. All they had to do was talk to the tax guy, ask him to fill out the form and send it back to them.  It should have taken one day.  I can’t figure out they wanted my architect and myself to push a piece of paper around city hall.  A piece of paper that they lost track of at least twice.
  • The permit receipt was written by hand. At no time in the last 30 years has anybody in Union City figured out how to use Microsoft Excel to create a simple template that can be used to do math for them.

Anyway, this is it for me regarding the permit part of the story.  I’m sure the inspections and the CO process will go smoothly with these characters in charge.

Project Start

I am happy to announce that work has started today.  My contractor texted me a few pictures because he thought I wouldn’t believe that we are actually underway.

The first phase of the project is the masonry work.  This involves extending the back of the house by building a new foundation behind the existing one.  It also includes knocking down the misshapen and dangerous front stairs and replacing them with a safer set.

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The incredibly dangerous set of front stairs.  Take a close look, none of the steps are the same height.  The one in the middle is the worst, it is three bricks tall!

To begin, we need to rip the front of the house and the back of the house off and throw them away.  We also have to knock down the basement walls in the back of the house and remove a steel staircase.

The house only has a three-foot alley on the right side and a one-foot alley on the left.  This will prevent any mason from bringing in equipment to help the excavation process.  Therefore, we had to find a crew that was willing to dig out the new basement with shovels.  We also don’t have room out front for a dumpster, we have to remove trash one truck-full at a time.

These constraints proved tricky for my contractor to find someone that we could use.  Several people he brought in to look at the job refused to even bid on it.  One of them gave a bid of over $70K which we rejected.  He finally was able to find someone that was willing to take the job at a reasonable price so we could get started.

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Working hard on ripping out the entire back of the house.

This part of the project has already presented me with my first finishing decision to make.  What should the front stairs look like?  I posed that question to the architect, since it is job to mind the modern design aesthetic of the house.  He responded that “The front steps should be a concrete block with a cement skim coat finish and precast treads.”  OK, sounds good to me!

My contractor is already working on the next phases of the project.  He has the framer lined up and already got me a lumber quote from the lumber yard.  He also has two window quotes, one from Andersen, and one from Marvin.  He told me that we should order the windows now so that they’ll be ready once the masonry and the framing are done.

I am behind before we even got started, but the overwhelming amount of decision making regarding the finish of the house is about to begin.  I can’t describe how excited I am, and I’m looking forward to every bit of it.

Comments

  1. Oh my! In the rural area I lived in, there were no permits required, no inspections, nothing to worry about save a soil test for the septic system and a check by the county to make sure it was installed properly before it was covered. I knew I had it easy, I just didn’t realize how difficult it could actually be.

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  2. In a few months, I will let you know how the Hampshire County WV permitting system compares. I predict it will be both more primitive and far more expedient. If it isn’t, do you think a Cuban lawyer would be a good idea?

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