Plumbing Changes Tabled Again By OC Council After Lengthy Debate

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week again tabled a proposed ordinance change that would have somewhat relaxed the permitting and inspection process for the simplest of plumbing jobs after an hour-long-plus debate that left the issue as clear as mud.

The Mayor and Council on Tuesday resumed their debate on a proposed ordinance that would amend an outdated section of the building code that requires even the simplest of household plumbing jobs, such as replacing a toilet or a dripping faucet, to be completed by a master plumber after pulling the requisite permit from the city. Naturally, all projects requiring moving lines or replacing pipes that connect into the city water and sewer system should be completed by a professional, but a simple household job still falls under the same permit and inspection process.

For several months, the council has been debating an attempt to streamline the process and remove some of the more stringent requirements. It began last March when the council directed staff to come up with an ordinance change that would remove the requirements for permits and master plumbers from the easiest of household plumbing projects.

After tabling a vote last week, the council took up the debate again during Tuesday’s work session, and after a solid hour of debate, again sought more clarification.

In simplest terms, the proposed ordinance change would allow some basic household plumbing chores to be completed without getting a permit from the city and without being completed by a master plumber if the project is not “below the floor, behind the wall, above the ceiling or under the ground.” Larger projects would still require a permit, a certified plumber and a final inspection, but simply replacing a bathroom or kitchen fixture, stopping a dripping faucet or replacing a leaky valve would not.

Staff returned with some more recommendations on Tuesday, including allowing only projects in single-family homes or townhouses to bypass the permitting process and not multi-family, multi-story condos buildings, for example. The thinking on the latter part is that a failed plumbing project on say the 15th floor of a condo building could ultimately impact all of the homeowners on the floors below.

The staff has stated it preferred the ordinance be left in its current form, but if the council desired to simplify the process for homeowners, the permits could be waived but the post-project inspections would still be required. The staff also attempted to put a cap on the cost of a project that would require a plumber at $500, with the understanding more expensive projects would likely involve more complicated work that could impact the city’s water and sewer systems, but even that issue could not be easily resolved on Tuesday.

During the debate, Councilman Wayne Hartman pointed out simple household plumbing projects have become simpler with the advent of easier steps and one-stop, all-in-one kits available at Home Depot or Lowe’s, for example. At different times during the debate on Tuesday, Hartman made motions attempting to clarify the issues, including easing the permit requirements but keeping the inspections, for example.

“The world is changing and these things are simpler than they used to be,” he said. “I would hate to put an extra burden on people for projects they can do themselves anyway.”

Councilman Dennis Dare voiced concern about homeowners and lay people doing some plumbing jobs, particularly when venting or other public risks were involved, but agreed the simplest of jobs should not require a permit. Dare would not budge on the issue of relaxing the inspection process, however.

“I think we need to allow homeowners to do small jobs without a permit, but they should still have an inspector come out to make sure it is done right,” he said. “A lot of plumbing work gets done in Ocean City without a plumber.”

Councilman Doug Cymek agreed the inspection element of the process should not be eliminated.

“If your brother-in-law comes down for the weekend and does a project, you would still have to get the project inspected in the interest of public safety,” he said.

Hartman said his colleagues were reading too much into the ordinance as proposed.

“If this passes, it doesn’t mean everybody is suddenly going to do it themselves,” he said. “If they try it and run into a problem, they’re still going to have to call a plumber. I think this makes it simpler. The goal is to make this simpler and eliminate some of the regulations. We want to encourage people to improve their property. We’re not talking about re-inventing something. We’re talking about simple replacements.”

Council President Lloyd Martin said he was comfortable with some elements of the ordinance change but not with others.

“We want to make it better for the homeowner,” he said. “As long as you can see the plumbing, in other words if it is not behind a wall or beneath the floor, I’m okay with it. Let’s not make it too restrictive.”

Martin agreed the number of homeowners who actually pulled permits for simple household plumbing projects likely paled in comparison to actual number of projects, but said that didn’t mean those who skipped the permits were bad people.

“We had 536 permits pulled last year and I know we had many more projects done than that,” he said. “Let’s not make criminals out of those people who can and did do it themselves as long as it is done the right way.”

Mayor Rich Meehan said the simple code change had opened a Pandora’s Box of sorts of unanticipated issues.

“I think we’re doing the right thing in trying to eliminate some of the steps and costs for the homeowner,” he said. “We have to be cautious not to create a new problem while we’re trying to solve an old problem.”

Councilman Tony DeLuca agreed the issues had grown cloudier the more they were debated.

“The whole purpose of this is to simplify things,” he said. “The more we talk, the more inconsistent and confusing it gets. We are not ready for a motion on this. This is about making it simple for the homeowner to replace a like for like fixture, but we really need to go back and get this right.”

Councilmember Mary Knight agreed the ordinance changes as proposed needed more input.

“I think we need to have the Fire Marshal weigh in and I think we need a few examples of what we’re talking about,” she said. “I’m not ready to vote for this. We can bring it back for another day. Let’s get input from people we represent, the homeowners, the plumbers, the Fire Marshal.”

Meanwhile, Hartman, who has a background in property management and construction, appeared to be growing more impatient on what he believed was a fairly simple issue.

“I don’t know why this has to be so difficult,” he said. “We’re talking about above the floor and outside the wall. I don’t know why we need to confuse this with everything else. If it’s below the floor or behind the wall, this ordinance doesn’t apply and you have to get a plumber and an inspection. If you’re going behind a wall or below the floor, this ordinance doesn’t include that.”

After considerable debate, Hartman agreed to pull back his motion and the council agreed to bring the issue back for further debate. Meehan said the lengthy debate on Tuesday was not for naught.

“I think we accomplished something,” he said. “I think it’s really close and I think we can agree on something if we get this back in a simplified version. It’s been a little painful, like watching last night’s debate, but we’re getting closer.”

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.