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Pierce County finds 2,100 illegal buildings

Post by David Wickert on Feb. 3, 2010 at 9:55 am with 32 Comments »
February 3, 2010 4:33 pm

Pierce County has identified nearly 2,100 illegal garages, sheds and other improvements under a new program that uses aerial photographs to find structures built without a permit.

More than 200 property owners have sought amnesty for their illegal buildings under a county planning department program that began in October.

Those are some of the details included in a new report on the planning department’s “building amnesty program.”

Under that program, the county compares aerial photographs taken in 2005 and 2008 to find new buildings and identify those that were built without a permit.

The planning department then contacts property owners to offer them a deal: The department will waive fines for the illegal structures if the owners pay fees, obtain the building permits and get the inspections they should have gotten in the first place.

So far, the county has reviewed photographs of nearly 74,000 acres, mostly in the mid-county area, the Key Peninsula and Fox Island.

County officials say program will improve public safety by requiring inspections for structures that weren’t examined when they were built.

But one County Council member says using aerial photographs to catch permit scofflaws may be an invasion of privacy. Council members also wonder whether the program will generate as much money as expected.

Update: This post originally stated that there will be a full article on the building amnesty program in Thursday’s News Tribune. Looks like it’s going to hold until at least Friday. A lot of stories competing to get in the paper tomorrow.

Leave a comment Comments → 32
  1. bigbarb43 says:

    Gee, maybe Dale Washam had a point when he complained the inspections weren’t made. But then the County Council is never wrong, right? NOT

  2. ldozy1234 says:

    Bigbarb- you may have an interesting point and a legal one.
    Hummmm if the governing agency here ( County Exec and Council) and all the Pros. office, etc. already decided that failure of Madsen to conduct actual boots to the ground inspection “DID NO HARM”, nor made ” REVENUE” difference. then couldn’t any of those homeowners now being attacked by PALS hire an attorny pretty easy and fight any action? I mean, after all in big print and court cases, the whole PC govt and even the State has said its no big deal, therefore thats the standard and president they have chosen to set by their action…..
    Would love to see folks get together and take this one to court…

    Dave, I asked before but never got an answer.. So did this PALS investigation address EVERYONE in Pierce County or again have they only targeted Unincorporated Pierce?

  3. David Wickert says:

    Ldozy, it’s my understanding that the building amnesty program affects only unincorporated Pierce County. I’ll double-check and if I find out differently I’ll let you know.

  4. lostjon says:

    I’ll be spending some time in the next few weeks looking at satellite pics of properties belonging to PC council members and PC land use employees. This data can easily be compared to building info available on the county G.I.S. I encourage others to do the same. Who’s watching the watchers?

  5. g1965clustered says:

    It is becoming more and more apparent that no one is “watching” the “watchers”. The PALs dept. has accepted the resignation of one of their long-term planners and has even admitted that they knew he was developing property in PC (conveniently just outside his juridiction) but felt that the “firewall” he agreed to was suffcient enough to allow him to self-police himself. I guess when there was a conflict of ethics (oops, I mean interest) he would have told someone.

  6. headedsouth says:

    At least this will not add to Tim Farrell’s already tough schedule of dropping off candy bars down in Olympia to State Legislators especially since he has not un-incorporated areas of his Council District.

  7. ldozy1234 says:

    Thanks Dave.
    So apparently PALS has decided that ONLY unincorporated Pierce should be investigated?
    So does ONLY unincorporated Pierce pay permit fee’s, etc?
    So if your living within a city boundary, you automatically are protected?
    So PALS ( and many other PC agencies) can only enforce or force regulations to be upheld in unincorporated PC?

    Can anyone else say second class citizenship, discrimination or extortion based on address????????
    Sounds like the Charter needs some major changes if this continues…………

  8. GentleDove says:

    I don’t own property, so I will dare to comment…Will the “fees” collected from this Communistic make-work “program” even pay for the aerial photographs and the labor hours of these County employees poring over them (74K acres reviewed so far) to “catch” people who have built sheds and car ports on their own property? If not, I’m sure the “fee” amounts extorted will be increased. (An offer you can’t refuse!–what a deal!) The civil gov’t is really overstepping its bounds (again). Its money-thieving, privacy-violating schemes, self-legalized or not, are becoming ever more evident, even to socialistic Western Washingtonians.

  9. myquest says:

    Idozy1234 – Second class citizenship or discrimination? No more so than a Tacoma or Puyallup resident if either of those cities decided on an enforcement program like the county’s. PALS only has enforcement powers in the unincorporated areas of the county – and in South Prairie, by contract. Of course, we could consolidate all planning and permitting through PALS – but I am sure that every city would complain that their right to establish a building code that reflected local values was being trampled.

  10. ldozy1234 says:

    Thanks Myquest
    So if I understand you, PALS is only for unincorporated Pierce? With no authority on planning and permitting anywhere else in Pierce?
    Just a bit confused.
    Is it like Public Works where despite county flood plain regulations, cities could choose to ignore County regulations and over ride regulations if it improved their revenue base?

  11. jmhoward says:

    this issue came up with me about 5 years ago. I called to ask about a tree located on a friends property that she wanted taken down, with the sat photo he explained that it was located in the right of way and that she could not take it down…how big is big brother?

  12. deniseaksamit says:

    I wonder if they are actually going out to do inspections of these sheds etc before they are fining people? Because my understanding (info gotten from the county) is that if its is not a permanent structure then it doesnt need a permit. Permanent to the person from the county is ‘a foundation encased in cement’.
    I see lots of sheds on pier blocks, they arent permanent.

  13. ldozy1234 says:

    PS Myquest..
    I know my question sounded a bit confrontational but wasn’t meant that way. I just never have received a clear answer why PC depts can make one set of rules and enforcement in unincorporated and yet city residents/ cities don’t have to comply.. its confusing and I would appreciate any clarification.

  14. 2,100 buildings…the money spent on man hours to look at all the aerial photos to compare is undoubtedly more than the fees that would have been collected. Are these larger than the allowable out building size? That’s one building for every 35 acres. Then, what does the inspection do? No guarantees there, merely a formality.

    My property taxes have nearly DOUBLED in only four years: where is all the additional property tax money going?

  15. David Wickert says:

    Ldozy, PALS only has jurisdiction in unincorporated Pierce County. Tacoma and, presumably, other cities have their own building permit processes, laws, etc.. I don’t know the details on every city. I do know PALS’ jurisdiction is unincorporated Pierce County.

  16. derekyoung says:

    ldozy, each local government is responsible for their own jurisdiction’s permitting. Land use rules for the County only apply to unincorporated areas. Each city has its own rules and enforcement.

  17. S_Emerson says:

    Last Monday’s Community Development Committee meeting, during which Gordon Aleshire (PALS’s Building Official) provided an update on the amnesty program, will rebroadcast on channel 22 Saturday, the 6th at 8PM. It should also post online here fairly soon.

    To deniseaksamit – my aunt & uncle were “found out” by PALS’ use of the 2005-to-2008 aerial photography to have an above-ground plastic pool and a temporary pole-style carport (the kind you can buy at Costco). They were told they had to permit them both, but they instead took down their pool, and only permitted the carport (which exceeded the 200 sq-ft limit by 40 sq-ft). So apparently this doesn’t apply only to “permanent” structures.

  18. hgeorge says:

    In fact, Pierce County only keeps 10.5% of property taxes. I’ve been working this afternoon on a flyer that explains where the property and sales taxes go, and what Pierce County does with its share. Since I had this at my fingertips, here’s a breakdown of where your property taxes go:
    * 38% goes to the state
    * 20% goes to local schools
    * 11% goes to cities and towns
    * 10.5% goes to the county
    * 9% goes to fire protection districts
    * 6% goes to the road district
    * 2% goes to rural library
    * 1.8% goes to Metro Parks
    * 1.4% goes to the port

    Hunter George
    Pierce County Communications

  19. paulkathyann says:

    It’s not about safety. It’s about money.

  20. hgeorge says:

    Yes, inspections would be done. Here’s what PALS said about that in a Q&A on its web site:
    “Yes, a major part of the program will be inspection of the undocumented construction by a County Inspector to determine whether any health or life safety violations exist which need to be corrected. The property owner must consent to inspection as a condition of participating in the program.”

    I appreciate the spirited debate and genuine quest for answers. I encourage y’all to check out the Q&A and learn more about this.


    Hunter G.

  21. S_Emerson says:

    Mr. George – I sent the same question to you in an email a few minutes ago…

    Do you happened to the on demand videos (Council and Committees)? They don’t seem to be accessible from the website anymore. Where there is generally a small embedded video screen, there are now only tiny white boxes with dots in them.

    Thank you, sir.

    Stacy Emerson

  22. S_Emerson says:

    Oooops. my second paragraph should have started with “Do you happened to know what happened to the on-demand videos (Council and Committees)?

  23. S_Emerson says:

    For anyone interested..

    Mr. George responded and we figured out that it’s my computer that’s having the problem. He can see the vidos just fine using IE8. FYI – Firefox won’t allow you to see them, and I haven’t checked for issues with other browsers.

    So, if you have IE8, then you should be able to watch last Monday’s CDC meeting, and hear for yourself how PALS is presenting the info on the amnesty program.

  24. hgeorge says:

    Hopefully, our system isn’t limited to the IE8 browser (I’m a Firefox user). I’ve got a message out to my tech folks to check on that Thursday.

    Stacy, thanks for bringing this to my attention.


  25. ldozy1234 says:

    Thanks all
    That clears up a misunderstanding I had been stuck at.

    So the only way to “equalize” a playing field in some parity with out city managed brethren, do we advocate changing things… like the Charter?

    And then, it poses more questions-
    Unlike PALS, do city planning/permit division do a much better job of accurate data bases and performance?
    If our PALS is so bad ( slow permitting process, poor customer service etc. ) how does it rate against city offices?
    And because they are so bad and their staffing is getting cut, why are they not first improving the services their suppose to provide?
    Instead of taking time away from what should be a priority goal instead of spending time, personnel and money on this project ?
    I understand PALS lets their inspectors work for approved developers projects (after normal business hours if the developer pays for the overtime ) but why aren’t standard operations the first priority?
    If the permitting process is such a quagmire, prone to delays, under trained staff and goofed up processing …why add to the burden instead of fixing your agency first? That makes absolutely no sense.

    ( IMO That makes it appear as more of a “maybe we can force some revenue ” – invalidating the “safety claim”, instead of prioritizing first correctly and expediently doing the job they were suppose to.)

    Was this approved by the Exec?

    And lastly-
    Business Examiner’s view of this “special project” led to title their article 10/07/09 As “Amnesty Offer Could Mean More Work For Local Contractors” …………. “The program could mean a host of new work for building contractors in the area as property owners seek ways to correct construction errors ……..

  26. S_Emerson says:

    I’ve repaired my problem and can now see the videos.

    Thank you, too, Mr. George.

  27. uratroll says:

    This, imo, is government abusing it’s authority by the coercion, intimidation, and invasion of the right to privacy of citizens. This is not about safety, it’s about money. Their message is clear…give us you money or we’ll brake your legs. If it were really about safety then one could hire a private, reputable, and accountable company to inspect ones project at a fraction of a fraction of the cost that PALS will charge you. They’ll make you hire an engineer but they won’t let you do that will they? This business of our government extorting money from citizens, forcing them to sign adhesion contracts, and requiring them to consent to anything, or else, is outrageous if not downright criminal! Just my 2 cents.

  28. ldozy1234 says:

    Sometimes I think this story below sums it all up. It was suppose to be funny but sadly its more the truth than humor.
    The only things missing is he didn’t have his landregulated by flood zone mitigation or taken by eminent domain.


    In the year 2009, the Lord came unto Noah, who was now living in the United States , and said:
    Once again, the earth has become wicked and over-populated, and I see the end of all flesh before me.

    Build another Ark and save 2 of every living thing along with a few good humans.

    He gave Noah the blueprints, saying: You have 6 months to build the Ark before I will start the unending rain for 40 days and 40 nights.

    Six months later, the Lord looked down and saw Noah weeping in his yard – but no Ark.

    Noah! He roared, I’m about to start the rain! Where is the Ark ?
    Forgive me, Lord, begged Noah, ‘but things have changed.

    I needed a building permit.

    I’ve been arguing with the inspector about the need for a sprinkler system.

    My neighbors claim that I’ve violated the neighborhood zoning laws by building the Ark in my yard and exceeding the height limitations.

    We had to go to the Development Appeal Board for a decision.

    Then the Department of Transportation demanded a bond be posted for the future costs of moving power lines and other overhead obstructions, to clear the passage for the Ark ‘s move to the sea. I told them that the sea would be coming to us, but they would hear nothing of it.

    Getting the wood was another problem. There’s a ban on cutting local trees in order to save the spotted owl.

    I tried to convince the environmentalists that I needed the wood to save the owls – but no go!
    When I started gathering the animals, an animal rights group sued me.
    They insisted that I was confining wild animals against their will.
    They argued the accommodations were too restrictive, and it was cruel and inhumane
    to put so many animals in a confined space.

    Then the EPA ruled that I couldn’t build the Ark until they’d conducted an environmental impact study on your proposed flood.
    I’m still trying to resolve a complaint with the Human Rights Commission on how many minorities I’m supposed to hire for my building crew.

    Immigration and Naturalization are checking the green-card status of most of the people who want to work.

    The trades unions say I can’t use my sons. They insist I have to hire only Union workers with Ark-building experience.

    To make matters worse, the IRS seized all my assets, claiming I’m trying to leave the country illegally with endangered species.

    So, forgive me, Lord, but it would take at least 10 years for me to finish this Ark.

    Suddenly the skies cleared, the sun began to shine, and a rainbow stretched across the sky.

    Noah looked up in wonder and asked,
    ‘You mean you’re not going to destroy the world?’

    ‘No,’ said the Lord.
    ‘The government beat me to it.

  29. derekyoung says:

    uratroll, the purpose of building codes and inspections is to protect you and the public from unsafe buildings. Further, land use codes are about protecting the property of others. If you put in a garbage dump next door to someone’s house, obviously it will harm their property. So we develop regulations to prevent that sort of thing.

  30. uratroll says:

    Derek, I understand what you’re saying. I agree to a point. I do believe, however, that it can be done without the frustration or the huge financial burden being placed on a homeowner. Private companies can perform the same tasks quicker, with less stress, and for far less money. I think if those simple things were addressed you would probably see a population that is more receptive to the counties will. I don’t know, but I’ve heard that dealing with the county is an absolute nightmare and that they treat people like they are doing them a favor, not like they are customers to provide service to.

  31. bigbarb43 says:

    Idozy The only thing you forgot to mention is that in Washington all rain water belongs to the state. You’d have to get a permit for any flood.

  32. ldozy1234 says:

    For those interested the Pierce County Council asked PALS about this program in the Community Development meeting and you can watch the replay this Saturday ( the 6th) at 8 pm on channel 22 ( Comcast)
    Have only heard snippets but it raises even more questions on why PALS diverted staff to this special project.
    It does not sound like a cost effective use of staff resources and funds nor even anything that should be continued until PALS gets itself together first and handle its basic daily business efficiently.
    Hunter…. will the Exec. have a performance or other audit done on this project?

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