This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Want a sure-fire way to not get caught by Pierce County officials looking for buildings constructed without a permit?
Don’t construct a building without a permit.
Pierce County building officials are once again catching undue flack for a program that uses aerial photographs to find building-permit scofflaws.
County council members describe the program as “troubling.” KOMO commentator Ken Schram tried to stoke outrage Wednesday with a Schrammie and an entreaty to Pierce County to “put away the spy camera.”
The fuss is overblown. As regulatory enforcement initiatives go, this one is about as unobtrusive and forgiving as they get in the 21st century.
It is not the invasion of privacy that some critics claim. The county’s aerial photograps – taken for flood-planning purposes – are relatively unsophisticated. Anyone with an Internet connection can get a better and closer view of their neighbor’s property than Pierce County planners can.
The county’s planning department uses those photos to identify structures that were modified or added between 2005 and 2008. Then it checks to see if permits were issued on the work. So far, 24 percent of the structures reviewed did not have the necessary permits.
And if they didn’t have permits, it’s highly likely no one inspected the structure either. That’s the heart of the issue, despite claims that the crackdown on illegal structures is nothing but a shameless money-maker.
Yes, the county has collected $107,000 by scouting out such violations and inviting violators to enroll in an amnesty program. But that was money those property owners should have paid the county in the first place.
Building permits exist for a reason: To ensure that developers, contractors and property owners do things by the book.
The 2001 collapse of a substandard deck that killed a Pacific Lutheran University student is a well-known example of the possible hazards. But inspectors have found many other dangers in the 3,200 illegal garages and other structures they’ve discovered in reviewing just 11 percent of the county’s unincorporated acreage.
Here’s a sampling: Swimming pool decks with gaping voids between the decking and pool structure, buildings without smoke detectors or egress windows, showers installed without safety glass, a deck roof jerry-rigged with cables to keep it from toppling, an improperly constructed shed with wood-burning cookers that had charred surrounding timbers.
Let’s remember how the county got into this predicament. The county assessor-treasurer’s office, which normally would have alerted the planning department to illegal structures, skipped physical inspections of property for several years.
So, in some cases, property owners not only skirted the building permit process, they also escaped alerting the tax man to an increased property value.
That’s neither safe nor fair. To suggest that the county sit on evidence that identifies the scofflaws is absurd.