Locals reform, reject lax building rules
In an attempt to expedite development, some cities have adopted the practice of self-certification, which allows professional engineers and licensed architects to grant themselves permission to build property. While some officials propose reform to the self-certification process, stopping developers who do not follow city zoning laws, others disallow it altogether, or use a system that provides more oversight.
New York began allowing self-certification in the early 1990s, an attempt by the Giuliani administration to encourage more development in the city. Then, as the 1990s and 2000s progressed, a building boom blanketed the city and the East Coast, and the city’s Department of Buildings, which enforces building codes and issues construction permits, was not keeping up with the pace of development, says Councilmember James Vacca. “Time and time again, I saw building applications and plans with inaccuracies,” he says.
Vacca stopped or scaled back many projects that violated local zoning laws. He found that many engineers and architects did not understand that zoning laws in many areas — including his district — featured contextual zoning, which requires new development to be in context with the rest of the buildings in the area. Many one- and two-family houses in Vacca’s district were torn down for multiple-unit buildings, bringing traffic and other quality-of-life problems to relatively isolated areas.
On Feb. 1, the New York City Council passed a law giving the Department of Buildings commissioner power to suspend or revoke the self-certification privileges of an engineer or architect who knowingly or negligently supplies false or noncompliant information on an application or plan. Suspended engineers and architects can re-apply for self-certification privileges, once they pass a probationary period of training or continuing education on building codes and zoning resolution topics.
In Fort Collins, Colo., certain aspects of the building permit process allow self-certification, according to Rick Richter, the interim city engineer. Third-party professional engineers must inspect the structural aspects of a project — such as installing water in an apartment building or parking lots at a shopping center. There are no equivalent third-party inspections for developmental plans, says the city’s Planning Director Cameron Gloss. People who are not licensed architects can design a building and start construction with an engineer whose structural plans are then reviewed by the city’s Engineering Department.
Like New York, Holland, Mich., has had its share of rogue contractors who violate zoning laws and build without permission. “One firm put up 14 billboards in violation of the zoning laws,” says Cindy Osman, assistant director of the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhood Services. “We put one of the contractors in jail, and the legal process, with appeals, took four years to complete. It took eight to 10 months to take the billboards down.”
However, prosecuting contractors who abuse self-certification privileges can be very costly, a price that many smaller municipalities cannot or will not pay. While the practice of self-certification is not banned in Michigan, Osman says it is not commonly practiced and is not likely to be.
A Michigan legislative commission creates all building codes, and the local governments enforce the state codes along with their own zoning laws. Local zoning offices analyze plans for compliance with regulations and to determine if the plans meet all of the building codes. “Some government oversight is necessary,” Osman says.
Behlor Santi is a New York-based freelance writer.