San Juan County should penalize vigilante builders

The county is wrestling with enforcement of land use and building code regulations as the incidents of flaunting of those laws come to light. It would appear that some builders and developers now proceed on the philosophy that forgiveness is easier (and cheaper) to obtain than permission.

For years, in San Juan County, regulations about building and land use have been put in place whereby citizens apply for permits to go ahead with certain projects and the county government researches and approves or denies the permits.

Once an approved projects proceeds, it is the builder’s responsibility to abide by the code and obtain sign-offs on inspections. Investigation into perceived permit violations is complaint-driven. That is, it is assumed everything is kosher until county government hears otherwise when citizens report perceived code violations to the county.

Once a complaint is registered, the county investigates and may issue a stop-work order on a project. (If it is not too late).

There are two major flaws in this system:

• The county, although improving, continues to strugglle with clarity and responsiveness to permit applications, hindering it from processing applications in a timely manner;

• Because enforcement is overloaded – last year it was reported that the county Code Enforcement officer had double the workload of any other equivalent officer among Washington counties – many complaints are not investigated until the project (or violation) is a fait accompli.

The County Council has asked the overseeing county agency, the Community Development and Planning Department, to revise its code to include a “ticketing ordinance” when the permitting process is ignored or completed after the fact.

While in many cases it may be understandable that builders or developers feel they can’t wait for the county permitting authorities to make up their mind, it is also common knowledge that the county’s teeth are none to sharp in going after those who violate the permitting laws. A stiffer penalty may curb the practice of after-the-fact or non-existant permits.

So while this penalizing measure is long overdue in county code enforcement, it should be accompanied by two other measures:

• a renewed initiative in the CDPD permitting process to research and respond to permit requests, so that applicants can expect their application, submitted in a timely manner, will have an answer in a timely manner. Part of this process should be an editing of the required permits so that, as Council member Rich Peterson suggested last week, installation of a refrigerator and similar small potatoes, does not require permitting authorization from the county;

• a prioritization schedule for investigating complaints within the code enforcement office hat will allow a same-day response to responsible complaints of a significant concern.

Clearing a lot with heavy equipment is clearly not the same thing as posting an off-site sign within the Eastsound UGA. Yet, it was not reassuring to witness the prompt attention paid to removing signs on Eastsound corners last year, if the enforcement office is truly overloaded with complaints, some of which, it might be assumed, are of a more substantial and timely nature.

This prioritization may likely require that a second code enforcement officer be added to the county work force. That person should be located at the county offices in Eastsound; the number and urgency of complaints over the past several years would seem to justify that.

Planning and protection mean nothing if ordinarily law-abiding citizens can flaunt the law and ‘gain’ the system. The county should stand by the laws it enacts, by providing enforcement and financial consequences for those who continue to take the law, and the land, into their own hands.