red tag?
January 18, 2007 10:32 PM   Subscribe

Posit a house in Santa Cruz, Cal., where the owners have questions about building, with permit, an extension.

The (two-bedroom) house has an adjacent studio, separate but built at the same time as the house, which is now an unpermitted, converted rental; that is, the studio is not permitted as a bedroom, but has had an unapproved loft and kitchen added, with a couple callling it home. There's also a 20' yurt, used as a bedroom, next to the house.

What's the likelihood of the unpermitted works being tagged or the studio or yurt dismantled during the permit application or ongoing building inspections?

May it complicate things impossibly that the owners want to do the bulk of the construction work themselves?
posted by anadem to Law & Government (11 answers total)
The problems you'll face with getting permits for additional building, and keeping unapproved structures may have to do with density and setback provisions in your zoning, as much as with the lack of permits. If the yurt is viewed as a tent, or temporary structure, it may not need a permit, but you may need to take it down to meet density provisions when doing new construction, and demonstrate that it is not a permanent structure.

A "studio" that has a "loft" may present a more serious challenge, particularly with regard to meeting sanitation provisions for having a seperate occupancy permit, as you don't list a bathroom being part of that structure. But generally, there is some process for bringing existing structures into compliance with the building code, through variance procedures, unless those structures represent aggregious violations that would be a threat to neighboring properties through fire hazard, or some similar threat.

Set back provisions exist to preserve the ability of the land to absorb rainwater in flood scenarios, and to provide fire breaks between structures. When structures are built too densely, without adequate storm drainage, the water they shed during heavy rain events may have nowhere to go, and cause erosion or flooding on neighboring property.

The building permit process also serves to protect the health and welfare of property owners by enforcing earthquake resistance, electrical safety, and plumbing standards are met, and that the intent of zoning ordinances in regulating land use are met. The permit process also serves as an input to the property tax system, ensuring that properties are fairly assessed.

If I were you, I'd engage a real estate attorney in your area to see what I needed to do to clean up any current problems, before starting the process of applying for new permits, as you may be required to disclose existing structures in the permit process. Knowing what is allowed under current zoning, and having a clean slate to start, will help avoid problems and surprises that will be increasingly expensive down the line.
posted by paulsc at 12:10 AM on January 19, 2007

As a Santa Cruzan with no knowledge about code: everyone has houses like this here. I can't imagine there'd be trouble.

Maybe if there's a gas range where there shouldn't be...when the permiting dude comes by... but seriously I've lived in three (at least) non-code rentals here and even looked at homes to purchase with similar bungalows/converted detached garages with baths. The realtor just siad "you could rent this out, but of course, it's not code." It just seems like the construction companies and diyers have no problems.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:14 AM on January 19, 2007

(I see you're local, too. I do second the real estate lawyer suggestion. Can't hurt. One more SC rentals anecdote: calling around for my first off-campus housing, something in the $400 range, I was asked how tall I was for a particular studio. Which was apparently located on a stump.)
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:19 AM on January 19, 2007

FYI todays NYT. I have no idea of local politics, but it seems as if they would permit the building and previous structures in return for higher property taxes.

What Paulsc said about sanitation and additional people is a big issue when asking for permits around my town (on the other side of the country).
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:31 AM on January 19, 2007

I would add to the suggestion of a real estate attorney that you want to hire a connected real estate attorney. You want one who has worked in the city on local development issues for many years, and knows both what the law allows, and what the various agencies actually will and will not allow. No need to spend thousands getting up to regulatory snuff if, in fact, there is a dont-ask-don't-tell policy, for example.

And take advantage of the way politics and land development are connected in most places, if you are forced to regularize everything. If you can "solve" the problem by hiring the contractor who is the brother in law of the real estate attorney's friend who is on the city council, you'll spend a lot less time in line at the permit office. (I'm not advocating corruption at all; I'm just suggesting that there is a lot of grey area in the regulation and implementation of land use law, and you should make that work for you instead of against you.)
posted by Forktine at 5:26 AM on January 19, 2007

A "studio" that has a "loft" may present a more serious challenge, particularly with regard to meeting sanitation provisions for having a seperate occupancy permit, as you don't list a bathroom being part of that structure. But generally, there is some process for bringing existing structures into compliance with the building code, through variance procedures, unless those structures represent aggregious violations that would be a threat to neighboring properties through fire hazard, or some similar threat.

This is generally correct, but note that unless you're viewing the studio/loft as an "accessory dwelling", meaning that someone can live in it independently from the main house, you shouldn't really have a problem with sanitation issues or having a kitchen or whatever. It's also possible that your local zoning does not allow for an accessory dwelling in the first place, so you wouldn't be allowed to have a kitchen in there anyway. I don't think you'd generally have a problem with the structure not having a bathroom or other plumbing, as this could just be viewed as an art studio, guest house, cabana, work shed, etc. It would all depend on what your zoning allows.

If you're planning on adding to the main house, part of your drawing package for obtaining a permit will most likely include a site plan, which should show all existing structures on the site and distances between them (as paulsc notes, for fire separation purposes). This is probably where they'll ding you, if they do at all. If your zoning includes limitations on floor area, that might also come into play and compromise the size of your planned addition.
posted by LionIndex at 7:39 AM on January 19, 2007

Advice appreciated, thanks! Things I left out: the house+studio are modern, built in 1998; the studio has a full bathroom, but the added kitchen made it "an accessory dwelling", which I think is disallowed because of sanitary limitations; the property is in Santa Cruz county and is fairly isolated a few miles from town, so density isn't an issue.

I'll go find a connected real estate attorney ...
posted by anadem at 9:58 AM on January 19, 2007

Code compliance is not very well funded in SC County. However, when inspectors have nothing better to do they may follow pickups from Home Depot / SLV Lumber / Scarborough and see what's going on.

The fact that unpermitted dwellings exist that were built in 1998 complicates matters. It is difficult to get permits from SC County the best of times, the rest of times you will prefer dental work. Having an attorney will help.
posted by jet_silver at 10:46 AM on January 19, 2007

The city of Santa Cruz recently approved measures to include Auxhiliary Dwelling Units in their building code. If you could make the case for the outbuilding as ADU and have it approved retroactively, then you stand a chance of keeping it. However, you would then have to face fines for not having a licensed rental unit, which is pretty steep in SC, because of rental laws as they are. (My parents are rental property owners in Berkeley, where the law is actually tougher). I don't think the yurt falls under any permit categories because it per se does not have a foundation or outside sewerage. Of course, you might have a very sophisticated yurt. In which case, could you share your friend's construction method for that, because I would be really interested.
posted by parmanparman at 11:28 AM on January 19, 2007

I'll go find a connected real estate attorney ...

I'd really recommend just calling the city's planning/zoning department first and asking what type of zone you're in--just calling and asking for zoning information isn't going to raise any red flags at the building department about the property in question or anything, they get calls like that all the time. You can probably then do research on your own (try here) to discover whether that zone allows ADUs or not, and how much square footage or lot coverage is allowed. Just from that, you should get a pretty good idea of whether the city will want you to tear down or seriously modify your ADU right off the bat. Whatever the case, there's plenty of research legwork you can do on your own without having to pay an attorney to do it.

Just looking at the ADU page on the site I linked above, you really should have no problem having an ADU on site from a planning/zoning standpoint, but if you have to retroactively permit the structure, that could be a real bitch. This is where talking to an attorney could really be helpful. As a shameless plug for my colleagues in your area, you may find it helpful to speak to an architect as well. Permits is their business, yo.
posted by LionIndex at 11:47 AM on January 19, 2007

If you're in one of these zones, an accessory dwelling unit is allowed (good luck getting it permitted!):

24.16.120Locations Permitted.

Accessory dwelling units are permitted in the following zones on lots of 5000 square feet or more:

1.RS-5A, RS-10A

2.RS-1A, RS-2A



5.R-1-56.R-L, R-T(A), (B), and (D).

Information copied straight from Santa Cruz website.
posted by LionIndex at 11:57 AM on January 19, 2007

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