Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bureaucracy, Part 2

didn’t expect this to be over, but I didn’t think it would be this bad.

I met with the building inspector several months ago to get his comments and see if I needed to provide anything else on the drawings for the permit to go through. As he flipped through the drawings and noticed all the unconventional details, he told me everything will go fine as long as I have the engineer’s seal on the structural drawings (the last five sheets in the set) – which I planned to have anyway.

So a few weeks ago I met with the engineer to get his seal, then dropped off the drawing set to the building inspector. The next day my engineer called me to say the building inspector asked for a seal to be on every sheet, not just the structurals. Of course the structural engineer will not seal the whole set.

So I called the building inspector:

Me: My engineer said you have some questions about the plans?
Inspector: You have to put your seal on the drawings.
Me: I don’t have a seal. I’m not licensed yet.
Inspector: Well, you’re gonna have to get that way.
Me: But this is a single residence, and I will live there. I’m not supposed to need a seal.
Inspector: You need a seal on these because there are lots of details that are not code-compliant.
Me: Like what?
Inspector: Like your roof slope; it has to be 3/12 minimum.
Me: It’s a standard low-sloped roof, ¼” per foot, with a membrane. This is done all the time.
Inspector: There’s nothing in the residential code that deals with that.
Me: So how do you permit all these buildings around here with low-sloped roofs?
Inspector: Under the commercial code.
Inspector: Can’t you get someone you know to stamp them?
Me: Generally architects won’t stamp drawings that aren’t theirs. Why didn’t you say anything about this when I showed you the drawings months ago? All you said was that I needed an engineer’s stamp for the structural details.
Inspector: Yeah, well, I’m just telling you what I need. Just get a stamp on all the drawings and we’ll be good.

I got off the phone and seethed. Really? The residential code doesn’t recognize a low-sloped roof? I wanted to call back and say, “I’m not a physicist but I’m pretty sure water has the same properties when running off of a house as when running off of Walmart. If it works for the commercial code it will work for a house! Use some common sense!”

Then I wanted to call back and ask, “You’ve heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, right? Good. Greatest American architect ever? Yeah. Tons of houses with low-sloped roofs. Would you withhold a permit from Frank Lloyd Wright?”

Below is an image of the most famous residence in the world, “Fallingwater,” by Wright. Many consider it the greatest building of the 20th century. Guess what: not a pitched roof in the place.

When I felt like I could speak without cussing (and I don’t even cuss), I told my boss about my permitting difficulties. He smiled and graciously agreed to review my drawings and put his seal on them.

From the beginning of this project I’ve had a vague desire to do everything with as little outside help as possible – outside of God’s, that is. But so far I’ve needed a licensed structural engineer, a licensed general contractor (required by the bank), and a licensed architect. Perhaps God is drawing some attention to the individualism that still infects me.

I returned my completely sealed plans to the inspector. So I feel pretty good about the building permit now. But soon I realized this was a small issue compared with what was coming. When I originally dropped off the drawings I was told that once the building inspector signs off on the house I will have to bring a form saying I’ve paid the fees for sewer and water at the site.

Besides these fees being inexplicably high (over $4,500) this task seemed straightforward enough. But the street along which the sewer and water lines run is a state road, so I was referred to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to be sure I could bore under the road to tap the sewer line. I called NCDOT and they said I would need a permit for that. Then they said, by the way, you also need a permit to tap the water line, even though it’s on the same side of the street as your property, because it’s in the Right of Way. Then they said, by the way, you’ll need yet another permit for your driveway.

I was not too aggravated by all this until I saw these permit applications. They asked me to do new drawings. They asked me to take out a “Performance and Indemnity Bond,” a special insurance policy for sewer and water taps. The checklist for completion of each permit went on for pages, and many of the items I either didn’t understand or didn’t know how to provide. Each application was a project in and of itself. All I could do is laugh. I threw the papers beside my chair and ignored them for several days.

I’ve had a recurring dream since childhood. The particulars of the dream vary, but the theme is the same: journeying towards some exciting destination and never getting there. The first one I recall was when I was a child. I was going with my family to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, and was very excited about it. We got to the park and the line was ridiculously long. We stood in it and inched closer to the park. I played with other kids in the line. We got close to the gate, but the line seemed to move even slower. I rode my bike with other kids through the woods along the edge of the park. Then I awoke. We never got into Busch Gardens.

Over the years this dream has continued to return in different forms. I’ve gone to the beach and never gotten in the water. I’ve gone to table tennis tournaments and never played. Last night I was practicing for a soccer tournament and awoke before the first game started. What happens? In each of these dreams it’s not just that I awake before I get there. The journey itself becomes so long and tedious that I run out of time. The journey devours the destination, unfolds into a labyrinth impossible to solve.

O God, let this not be the story of this house. Let this not be my life. I have prayed that this dream is an expression of fear in my own mind, rather than a prophesy.

I remembered these dreams as I sifted through requirements for three different permit applications, including several new drawings, two insurance bond forms to go with them, “in the amount stated above for the payment for which sum we bind ourselves… whereas the PRINCIPAL entered into a certain Encroachment Agreement with the DEPARTMENT hereinabove described and incorporated herein by reference… IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the above-bounded parties have executed this instrument…” Oh I did want to execute something! It felt like a labyrinth had sprung up between me and this house.

And then I got suspicious. Thank God for suspicion. Seriously? Did everyone in this development have to submit all this stuff before building their houses? It seems extreme. Or did they just not contact NCDOT before doing the work? Would I have been “wise as a serpent” to not make any phone calls? Or would that not be “as innocent as a dove”?

I called the company that owns the sewer and water lines. He acknowledged the permits that I was asked to provide and said he would sign off on them. But then I asked if this type of permit is typical for single houses. He said no, because his company has a “blanket agreement” with the DOT that allows them to approve line taps wherever they need to. I called NCDOT and told them this. They said, oh, a blanket agreement; that’ll work fine. I was a bit perturbed that they didn’t already know this. But hallelujah: two permits down.

I was also suspicious of the requirement for a driveway permit. So I downloaded the DOT’s own policy on driveways. As I browsed the introduction I came across this glorious line: “Permits will normally not be required for a single residence.” I emailed this to the DOT contact I had been speaking with and she said, oh, okay, nevermind the permit.

A three-dimensional labyrinth vanished before my eyes in a matter of hours. I can see my house again. Of course I know there will be more trouble along the way. There is already: the subcontractor who was going to do my clearing, grading, concrete, stone, and brick work dropped out, deciding the work was too complex for his crew. Anyone want a job? Or five? It is a new labyrinth (though thankfully not a bureaucratic one), but I have more confidence to begin walking through it because of how the others have been resolved. I just pray I can stay awake long enough.

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