Council Approves Changes Aimed At Tightening Building Measures

OCEAN CITY – The city is cracking down on building, housing and property violations as the Mayor and City Council approved this week the hiring additional housing enforcement and making building codes stricter.

City Engineer Terry McGean explained that the building department’s building inspectors do not only work with new construction but also enforce the town’s housing and property maintenance code. He added that currently the town allows for one full-time and one part-time building inspector.

“When I brought this to you at budget time … I kind of had my blinders on to be honest,” McGean said.

McGean said that during that time he reviewed the number of inspections the town had conducted in the past with one-and-a-half inspectors and was satisfied with the work load, but an increase in housing and property complaints this summer has led him to review it again.

“What I learned over the summer was the housing code violations and the property maintenance code violations, and those complaints and those issues come up more and more,” he said. “Those issues take longer for us to address.”

McGean said that it takes three times longer for the building department to address a housing or property violation because something as simple as grass cutting needs to be looked at twice.

“With the authorized staff, we are treading water and quite frankly right now with the resignation of our part-time person we are no longer treading, our head is starting to go under a little bit,” he said.

McGean requested to hire a full-time inspector to replace the current vacant part-time position and that position will be more focused on property and maintenance violations.

“It is paramount that we keep up with the housing code and property maintenance,” Councilman Brent Ashley said as he motioned to approve McGean’s request.

The council voted unanimously on the motion.

The council also voted to approve amendments to the building code. The amendments are to reduce the amount of time the project can sit open with no work occurring from 120 to 180 days, establish a definition for what constitutes work abandonment as failure to progress with required inspections, establish a finite three-year time limit to complete a project, and require that all construction equipment be removed from the site and the site be secured until work resumes prior to receiving any time extension.

McGean explained that Ocean City’s building code uses the language of the International Building Code, which sets the time limit of 180 days before a building permit expires.

“The issue that we have run into with a couple different projects is they will wait 179 days and then go out and put in a piece of rebar and then the 180 day clock starts over again,” he said.

McGean said he struggled with establishing a three-year time limit being placed on a construction project but believes three years is an ample amount of time to complete construction especially since the convention center and public safety buildings were finished in two years.

He added that extensions are still able to be received during a three-year period, but one of the conditions of an extension is that if a project is suspended then a contractor is required to secure the site and remove all construction equipment, which the town has had issues with in the past.

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas agreed with the amendments but suggested adding a project may receive no more than two extensions without being reviewed by the Mayor and City Council first.

“I think with these projects sometimes we get busy and things get through the cracks,” she said.

Councilman Doug Cymek said he believes another problem in the code is that it does not specify a fine or fee if a project is not completed.

“If somebody stops a project and there is a relic sitting there, we are stuck looking at it until it goes through the court process,” he said “If they don’t finish the project in three years, what are we going to do?”

McGean said the incentive of losing all their permits should be enough. He explained if a building permit expires so does the contractor’s other approvals.

“I think it is an excellent improvement and long overdue,” Ashley said as he motioned to approve the amendments.

Next the council approved raising the minimum value for non-structural projects requiring a building permit from $1,500 to $2,500.

“We use a fairly strict interpretation of the building code in what kind of work requires a permit,” McGean said. “Basically what we say is nonstructural work requires a permit if it is more than $1,500, this valued base conception is fairly unique.”

According to McGean, during the last fiscal year the town processed approximately 150 non-structural permits less than $5,000, charging $75 each for permits, totaling $11,250 in fees. After some manpower estimates for this work and given the time it takes to process, review and inspect the minor projects, McGean concluded the town is losing money in the permit process.

McGean had initially proposed to amend the value by raising it to $5,000 worth of work but after reviewing the damage in town after Hurricane Irene he reduced the exemption amount to $2,500.

“It is a good first step,” he said.