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LIBERTY AND BUILDING PERMITS

 

 


By Bill Sizemore

November 30, 2006

NewsWithViews.com

Picture one of our nation’s founding fathers with hammer in hand, busily nailing in place the walls for a new bedroom for his colonial home. His family is growing and the addition of a new bedroom is a downright necessity. Yesterday, the floor joists were laid on post and beam and today the walls are going up. Tomorrow, rafters and a roof will be added and the room will be all but sealed from wind and rain.

In a couple of days more, the room will be ready to use. Well, close enough. The finishing touches can be added later, after the hay is in and the corn is harvested. Till then, it will be perfectly adequate sleeping quarters for a couple of the young ones.

Now picture some little weasel-looking fellow stepping out from behind a tree and brusquely announcing to our dear founding father, “Stop right there, Mr. Jefferson. Don’t drive another square nail into another board. I don’t see a building permit posted anywhere on this site and that makes you in violation of the law. Cease and desist immediately.”

From what I have learned of the men who founded this country, the fellow from the government would have been risking his very life to have made such a declaration on a free man’s own property. In fact, such an unwanted visitor would have been well advised to have yelled his demands from a safe distance - out of musket range. Telling a man he couldn’t nail boards on to the side of his own house without the government’s permission would have been unthinkable to such men. Such intrusion would have been seen as worse than many of the offenses of King George, offenses that led to a bloody revolution.

This little illustration goes to show just how much liberty Americans have lost over the past couple of centuries, especially the last fifty years. Today, most of us would weakly whimper to a government inspector who caught us working on our own home without a building permit, “Sorry, sir. I was hoping I wouldn’t get caught. I will immediately go down and apply for my pemit.”

Today, not only can you not add a bedroom onto your house without the government’s permission, you can’t even build a deck to lie out in the sun or install a utility sink in the laundry room. Some communities even require a homeowner to obtain a building permit to construct a tree house for the kids.

Today, the government is not content merely with charging you a fee for a building permit. That would be bad enough. They insist on telling you exactly how to build whatever it is you want to build. And they have a code for everything. Building codes today are so complex that professional builders are routinely forced to tear out yesterday’s work and redo it, just to satisfy the whim of some building inspector who is having a bad day, because his wife yelled at him when he walked out the door that morning.

Trust me. There is always something in the code that you inadvertently violated. Building codes are like tax law. Perfect compliance is all but impossible and it is rarely worth it to fight with an inspector over the interpretation of some part of the code. It’s faster and cheaper simply to give in to the bully, do it his way, and move on.

Ultimately, however, it’s your house. Isn’t it? You’re the one who is going to live there, not the fellow from the government, who is telling you how to build it or remodel it.

It would be bad enough, if the inspector knew more than you about building, but that is not always the case. You’ve heard the old saying, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, inspect.” It seems rather apparent that if the guy doing the inspecting really knew what he was doing, he probably wouldn’t be inspecting other people’s work for $40,000 to $50,000 a year. He would be busy building and remodeling for others, and making two or three times as much.

All too often, the guy who failed as a builder, because he now represents the awesome power of a meddling government, is telling the fellow who actually builds for a living, what he did wrong and how he is going to build.

In the construction trade, there are few souls hated more than building inspectors. Far too many of them throw their weight around just to show everyone how powerful they are. To be fair, here and there one will run into a building inspector who knows his stuff, has common sense, and is a fair and even-handed person. But for every one of those there are several others, who have Napoleonic complexes and take devilish delight in forcing some unlucky homeowner or builder to “tear it out and start over.” Makes them feel powerful.

One of the things that has always puzzled me about building inspectors is that for a large fee they come out and inspect your work and tell you how to build safely, but later, if the house falls down on you, or the faulty wiring they approved causes the house to burn down, neither they nor the public entity they represent is liable for anything. You are on your own.

If the city or county is not liable for the construction work they approved, who needs their advice or permission? If they accept no liability, what are you getting for your money? You pay them to delay your project, increase your cost, and boss you around on your own property.

Most of all, what you get is a loss of freedom. Imagine what it would be like if you could wake up one bright, sunny morning and say, “Martha, I am going to tear down that sagging front porch today and build a brand new one,” and then change into your grubby clothes, pick up a crowbar and hammer, and start to work. But, no sir. You can’t do that; not in America. Here in this “land of the free,” you have to draw up a plan, take it down to the city or county, draw a number and wait for who knows how long for someone to “serve” you.

Then, when your turn comes, you pay a fee, wait some more for some bureaucrat to review your plan and approve it after you have made all of the changes they have demanded. Then, when they say so, you can go to work.

That is not the end of it, though. At various stages along the way, you have to stop and wait for your work to be inspected before moving on. The inspector might be able to come today, or might be tomorrow or the next day. And if there was a light on that porch, you have to wait for a separate inspection for the electrical portion of the job, even if the work was performed by a licensed, insured, bonded electrical contractor that has wired a thousand houses before installing your porch light.

Your old porch may not have had a railing around it, but the new one will, even if you don’t want one. The codes have changed since your house was built, and the new porch will have a rail, because the government says it will have a rail. The deck is one inch too high off the ground, so it must have a rail, even though the sagging one you are replacing was the same height, and didn’t have a rail.

All of this government intrusion into peoples’ lives troubles me greatly. Citizens of what is supposed to be the most free nation in the world ought to be able to add a bedroom or deck, build a garage, or replace their roof right down to the plywood sheeting, without the government’s permission. Are we so stupid and incompetent that we can’t improve our own houses without government oversight? And are we such sheep that we suffer this gross intrusion and bullying without a fight.

I have decided to find out whether the spirit of liberty still lives in the hearts of the people of the State of Oregon. I am placing on the 2008 ballot a measure that would allow farmers and homeowners to do $35,000 in improvements to their property each year without a building permit.

The measure contains a few reasonable caveats. Electrical work must be signed off by a licensed electrical contractor, you can’t add a second story to a house without a permit, the new construction must be a legal distance from the property line, and most of all, you have to disclose all such improvements to any perspective buyer, so if he wishes, he can have a home inspection performed before he buys. Besides, if you don’t build well and you for example skip pouring a concrete foundation, your new buyer probably won’t be able to obtain financing and you will have to go back and do it right, if you ever want to sell.

This measure doesn’t allow you to build a brand new house without a permit. You can add on to an existing residential structure, but you can’t build a new house without a permit, even if you do it $35,000 per year. The measure does, however, allow you to build a $35,000 agricultural building without a permit, which is the way it was in Oregon until just a few years ago.

I really like this measure. It is going to be interesting to see how it is received on election day. I can’t quite imagine why anyone except building inspectors would oppose it, well, except for those weak souls who think government ought to control every part of our lives and believe we country folks would build our outhouses right over our wells, if they weren’t around to keep an eye on us.

To me, this measure is about one thing: Liberty. Do we want freedom and the responsibility that goes with it? Or do we prefer to have the government baby sit us from cradle to grave? Judging by how well many of those colonial houses have withstood the ravages of weather and time, I suggest we Americans are up to the task of doing a little remodeling on our own homes without the government’s permission.

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In this country, government was created primarily to protect and preserve one’s right to own property. Ownership of property means and has always meant that the property you own is yours to keep, to use, to sell, or to modify or improve. If you truly own it, you are free to do what you wish with it. If the government says you can’t improve it without its permission, then it is government who really owns your property, not you.

© 2006 Bill Sizemore - All Rights Reserved

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Bill Sizemore is a registered Independent who works as executive director of the Oregon Taxpayers Union, a statewide taxpayer organization. Bill was the Republican candidate for governor in 1998. He and his wife Cindy have four children, ages eight to thirteen, and live on 36 acres in Beavercreek, just southeast of Oregon City, Oregon.

Bill Sizemore is considered one of the foremost experts on the initiative process in the nation, having placed dozens of measures on the statewide ballot. Bill was raised in the logging communities of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, and moved to Portland in 1972. He is a graduate of Portland Bible College, where he taught for two years. A regular contributing writer to www.NewsWithViews.com

E-Mail: bill@otu.org

Bill's Web site: www.Billsizemore.net


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Today, not only can you not add a bedroom onto your house without the government’s permission, you can’t even build a deck to lie out in the sun or install a utility sink in the laundry room. Some communities even require a homeowner to obtain a building permit to construct a tree house for the kids.