City defends its building permit/inspection process – and how it’s enforced
By Roger McCredie-Last week the Tribune published a story detailing difficulties several Asheville business owners – one in particular – reported encountering at the hands of the city’s building permits and inspections department, as well as with other entities involved in the certification process. The Thanksgiving holiday week made it difficult to reach contacts and the foreshortened week added time and space constraints, so the decision was made to turn the story into a two-parter.
To recap: the previous installment (“It Is What It Is,” Nov. 28) examined some frustrated business owners’ accounts of convoluted city code regulations, inability to contact and work with city personnel and arbitrary fines or citations, all adding up to unexpected expense and delays in projected opening schedules. In particular, newbie club owner Benjamin Reese recounted his version of a long, frustrating and expensive running battle with city officialdom in trying to get his fledgling piano bar, Off the Wagon, up and running. Reese spoke of having his electricity shut off at one point by a deputy fire marshal; of having stormwater services threaten him with a $25,000-a-day fine unless he corrected a wastewater emission that, it turned out, was not on his property; and of having his certificate of occupancy suspended for alleged violation of state building codes. (Reese said the state Department of Inspections informed him he had violated no state codes.)
But earlier this week, Mark Case, the city’s assistant director of building safety, disputed Reese’s allegations of arbitrary inspection actions. In effect, Case said, Reese brought his problems on himself by failing to familiarize himself with building code requirements and even acting contrary to them when he should have known better. In fact, Case said, a lack of preparation or, sometimes, blatant defiance of regulations is at the bottom of many problems that arise in the permitting and inspections process.
In the case of Off the Wagon, Case said Reese had gotten the cart before the horse. “He did exactly what he was supposed to do to begin with,” Case said. “He obtained all the permits that are needed to just replace one bar with another. But after that, he started doing major work without getting the permits he needed for that kind of remodeling. He was using unlicensed individuals to help him, he had exposed sewage lines and exposed wiring. He was violating all kinds of code requirements. So then it became an enforcement issue. We had to shut his work down till that could be resolved.” (Reese earlier said that he repeatedly attempted to contact Case’s department by phone for clarification of requirements but could not reach inspection officials, who also did not return his voice mail messages.)
“It’s all there in black and white,” Case said of the city’s permit requirements and inspection procedures. “The whole process is very transparent and we try to go the extra mile to make ourselves available to people. After all, we want to get them up and running, too. That’s in the city’s best interest as well as ours.”
Case’s boss, interim building safety director Shannon Tuch, laid the blame for Off the Wagon’s permitting problems squarely on Reese, saying that he deliberately misled her department by representing that he would not be performing any construction work and then doing exactly that.
“Because Mr. Reese had demolished a sizable amount of the interior, along with mechanical, plumbing, and electrical work that was unpermitted, the space had to be reconstructed to meet current code requirements. Had Mr. Reese honored what he said he was going to do and reoccupy the space without performing this interior work, then he would [now] be open for business,” Tuch e-mailed the Tribune.
“We can do little to prevent people from making poor decisions, especially when they misrepresent what they are intending to do, but we do our best to respond and provide the necessary direction to get the project back on track,” Tuch added.
“There are three versions of the truth: [the city’s] version, my version and the real truth,” Reese said of Case’s and Tuch’s comments. “I’m prepared to show that my version is a lot closer to the actual facts than theirs.”
Stories of several businesses who have recently encountered permitting or inspection problems similar to Off the Wagon’s were related to the Tribune by a successful, long-established downtown Asheville business owner who said he had first hand knowledge of them. “But,” the owner said, “You’re going to have trouble getting most of them to talk. They’re scared to death of [the permits/inspections department]. You get on the wrong side of them and they can hassle you to death.”
Sure enough, one business owner mentioned by the source told the Tribune, “Thanks for reaching out! However, I prefer to not make a statement and do not want our business to be included in the article.”
Another suggested contact was Kentucky-based Greer Companies, owners of the Asheville Cheddar’s restaurant, which located here in 2006. The source said Greer is accustomed to paying around $15,000 for permits and inspections on a new store, but that the process for the Asheville store amounted to some $46,000. When asked to verify that information, Greer spokesperson Shannon Kerkhoff replied, “Unfortunately, we don’t have convenient access to that information at this time … I apologize for not being able to help you with the information you need.”
Case said that he was not able to comment offhand about the Cheddar’s permitting price tag but said, “That [$46,000] figure probably includes a whole lot of expenses that are not related to our department.”
Kristina Im, who with her brother Jason has been trying to get a new eatery, Korean House, open on College Street for more than six months, said misunderstandings about the permitting process has resulted in considerable unexpected expense. “The city gave us the wrong instructions for installing our [kitchen] hooding system and we had to take up the whole bar, which we didn’t think we would have to do,” she said, “And all this time we’re still having to pay rent.
“I don’t want to make it sound like they were hard on us, though,” Im said. They’ve been very helpful every time we’ve had to go back to them. I don’t want to make them sound bad.”
“That’s a myth that needs to be debunked,” Case said of such cases of inspection-phobia. “I know the process can seem a little intimidating to somebody that’s new to it, but that’s why we’re here.”
Meanwhile, the information source who is cited above as “the source” is referred to that way because the source spoke on condition of strict anonymity.
“I’m on good terms with these people myself,” the source said. “I’d just as soon keep it that way.”