Streamlined Plumbing Permit Ordinance Tabled In OC

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week tabled a proposed ordinance relaxing the permitting process for the simplest of plumbing jobs, such as replacing a toilet or repairing a dripping faucet, over concerns the proposed change went too far.

The Mayor and Council had before them on Monday a proposed ordinance for first reading that would have amended an outdated section of the building code that requires even the simplest of household plumbing jobs to be completed by a master plumber after pulling the requisite permit from the city. Naturally, all projects requiring moving lines and pipes that connect into the city water and sewer system should be completed by a professional after being granted the appropriate license, but what about the simply replacement of a toilet of bathroom fixture?

Under the current code, even swapping out a kitchen sink with a new one in the same location with the same plumbing requires a permit and a licensed plumber although it’s safe to say many current homeowners bypass the process for the simplest of jobs. However, the ordinance before the Mayor and Council on Monday would have removed some of the more stringent requirements.

In its simplest terms, the proposed ordinance would not require a permit and a licensed plumber for the stoppage of leaks, the replacement of valves and fixtures, drain pipes and vent pipes, for example. However, any project that would require the replacement of pipes or drains “below the floor, behind the wall or above the ceiling or underground,” would require a permit and a Maryland master plumber.

Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville said the ordinance as proposed would streamline the process and eliminate roughly 25 percent of the permits now required for simple home improvement project. The estimated loss of revenue for the streamlined permit process is around $5,000. Councilman Wayne Hartman questioned whether the decrease in inspections would offset the losses in the permit revenue.

“We’re talking about a loss of $5,000 in fiscal revenue,” he said. “With not having inspectors go out on these small projects, it thought it might be a net gain.”

However, Neville explained requiring fewer inspections would not impact the strain on the staff.

“We have one plumbing inspector whether we do these permits or not,” he said. “The savings would be negligible.”

Neville said the staff prepared the ordinance at the direction of the Mayor and Council last spring. He said given their druthers, the staff would prefer to keep the requirements the same.

“I think at this point, what we understood was the council’s desire to streamline the permit process,” he said. “From the staff’s perspective, we’re better off with the ordinance as it is today. We don’t know if there is a middle ground between the two options. I’m not sure trying to hit a middle goal would have any benefit.”

Councilman Dennis Dare said he understood the intent of the proposed ordinance, but voiced concern it might go too far in relaxing the standards.

“I have a conflict because I believe we should make it easier for a homeowner to simply replace something,” he said. “But I also think the public welfare is better served to have a licensed plumber do most of these things instead of having someone in a condo replacing a water heater and having it wreak havoc on an entire building.”

However, Councilman Matt James believed there could and should be a separation between the simple replacing of a kitchen sink and replacing a water heater or dishwasher, for example.

“I thought this was a simple issue,” he said. “If you replace an inside fixture, you’re going to know pretty quickly if you did it wrong. These are fairly simply improvements and requiring a permit for every single one is a little much.”

Councilman Doug Cymek said in its simplest terms, 10 words in the ordinance — “direct replacement of a plumbing fixture in its same location” — should make it clear, but the ordinance as written leaves some improvements open-ended.

“I think this leaves a lot of issues for the staff to wrangle with all year,” he said. “This is not the answer.”

Council Secretary Mary Knight said the issue could be as simple as clearly defining what jobs should be completed without a permit. As it stands now, homeowners tackling even the smallest of jobs are required to pull a permit for $45, which is sometimes more than the cost of the project itself, and find an approved master plumber to complete the work.

“I think we need to define what a fixture is,” she said. “I want it to be easier for the homeowner. I don’t want a homeowner to have to sneak out to Home Depot and get a new toilet seat without a permit and feel guilty about it.”

Neville said staffers who monitor the permit and inspection process are finding most homeowners are less concerned with the price of the permit that the master plumber requirement. A simple job could be completed by a homeowner on a Saturday afternoon currently requires a registered master plumber with all that entails.

“It’s not the $45 permit that causes concern,” he said. “It’s hiring a Maryland master plumber for a fairly simple job. At least that’s what we hear at the counter. There could be different types of permits for some jobs that don’t require a master plumber. The Maryland plumbing code might not be as flexible and we need to see if we’re allowed to deviate from that as a municipality.”

After considerable debate, it was determined the ordinance did not clearly define he intent of the Mayor and Council and it was decided to bring it back for a work session for more tweaking.

“At this point, I’m quite honestly confused,” said Knight. “I think we need to table this and I think a work session would be helpful.”

Part of the issue is the staff crafted the ordinance at the desire of the Mayor and Council, but weren’t entirely comfortable with the final result.

“This might not be the best solution,” said Neville. “The staff might not move from their position of being against anything that eases the standard.”

With that said, the proposed ordinance was tabled and the issues will be revisited before it is presented again.

“I thought this would be streamlining the process to encourage homeowners to make improvements and keep up their properties,” said Hartman. “I guess the right thing to do is go back and take a closer look at it.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.