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New code triggers scramble to build

County examiners are struggling to sift through a flood of permit applications submitted before a stricter statewide building code took effect March 1.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 24, 2002


LECANTO -- It took only a few days for builders to flood the county with building permit applications in late February, before the stricter statewide building code went into effect March 1.

But it is taking weeks for county examiners to sift through the avalanche of applications for everything from carport additions to new homes. Of the 23 boxes of permit applications received in the February rush, 10 remain to be processed.

"We hadn't seen activity like that since the initial adoption of impact fees (in the late 1980s)," said Gary Maidhof, the county's director of Development Services. "The place looked like we were preparing for a yard sale. We had boxes everywhere."

The county received 1,228 building applications in February, a 50 percent jump over January. As long as builders applied before March 1, their permits fall under the old county building code.

"A lot of builders basically sold more homes before March 1, because with the new code, people knew they were going to be paying more for those homes," said Mike Moberley, president of the Citrus County Builders Association. "It was to their advantage to buy then."

As much as anything, these last-minute applications, along with the 319 pages of new code revisions the county received last week, tell the story of a community coming to grips with the new building rules.

Created after Hurricane Andrew tore through South Florida in August 1992, the new code sets statewide standards for storm-resistant, energy-efficient buildings. Previously, there were different regulations in more than 400 cities and counties throughout the state.

Under the new code:

Sheds must have permits. Homeowners used to be able to install garden sheds without a permit, but not anymore. Even the smallest sheds must have permits for their foundations or tie-downs. The county must review the plans for site-built sheds, including those built from kits, to make sure they can withstand 110 mph winds.

With no permit exemptions for minor structures, Maidhof said, "One would wonder if that is going to be interpreted or expanded to (require permits for) doghouses, play-sets or barbecue pits."

Maidhof hopes to find the answer in the 319 pages of revisions and elaborations on the new code, which county officials received last week.

Windows and outside doors must be stronger. Now considered a structural part of any building, windows and exterior doors (including garage doors) in Citrus County must be built to withstand 110 mph winds.

Whether you're replacing one window or all of them, you'll need a county permit, a change from the old code. New windows and doors must also be inspected by county officials to make sure they were installed properly.

County officials suspect some homeowners will try to skirt that rule by doing their own home improvements.

"Technically, they should get a permit from us, but we're not staking out Home Depot or Cox," Maidhof said.

Major renovations will require upgrades to the entire house. Say you add a sunroom and a guest bedroom, together increasing the square footage of your home by more than 25 percent. Or you make other improvements, such as foundation repairs or masonry work, that do not expand the house but cost more than 50 percent of the building's value.

Either way, you have triggered a requirement to bring the rest of your home up to the new code. Some think that simply means adding smoke detectors and ground-fault circuit interrupters; others interpret it to mean improving electrical and plumbing systems.

"That's one of the downsides of this, that while we indeed have the code, we need these clarifications," Maidhof said.

The rule could make homeowners reluctant to make significant home improvements, said Ken Will, vice president of Will Construction Corp., a Homosassa remodeling company.

"I have gotten negative feedback from potential clients who said, "If that's the case, we won't add on. We'll go build another house,' " Will said.

If homeowners try to duck the rule by doing the renovations themselves, Maidhof said, they could create even bigger problems if they cannot do the job right.

"I anticipate some real horror stories along these lines," Maidhof said. "I would caution anybody to respect the advice of their professional contractors and to not try to get around the new building code by doing the work themselves without the benefit of a permit."

But Moberley expects the new code will have the opposite effect.

"I think you're going to find that with (the codes) being more complicated, people are going to have to rely on the licensed person that is held accountable and responsible for what they do," Moberley said.

Local builders praised the county's building division for holding workshops explaining the new code to contractors. But they said it will take practice, along with some trial and error, before the new standards sink in.

"There's going to be a learning process here, no question about it, for builders, building inspectors and engineers," Will said. "I anticipate it will take a full year before everyone is comfortable with how to do a new set of plans."

Builders estimate the new standards will increase the cost of a new home 5 to 15 percent. The standards also require more building inspections, increasing the workload of an already busy county building division.

"We estimate that on new single-family homes, we're probably adding three or four inspections, depending on the type of construction being done," Maidhof said.

The building division has nine inspectors and a vacancy for a 10th inspector, he said. With county budget time approaching, the building division is asking for an 11th inspector and another plans examiner to handle the additional reviews required under the new code.

In the meantime, the plans examiners are working "selective overtime" -- coming in earlier, taking shorter lunches, leaving later -- to process the boxes of building applications that came in last month.

"We all knew this was coming, and everybody prepared for it accordingly," Maidhof said. "We also prepared the industry to know it probably wouldn't be business as usual for awhile."

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

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