Clallam County adds teeth: Building permit fees to go up to fund more code enforcement activity

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County plans to more than double its code enforcement staff and change county code to help tackle problem properties across the county.

Commissioners approved Monday a Department of Community Development proposal that would increase building permit fees to fund full-time and part-time code enforcement positions.

“One of the things that we realized is that continuing to send letters that a person can throw into the garbage can isn’t doing any good,” said Commissioner Bill Peach.

He said that pairing the additional staff and adding “teeth” to how the county approaches code enforcement is “really good progress.”

Peach said he wasn’t in favor of hiring more staff without changes in the county code.

The Department of Community Development will increase its residential valuation from $94.06 per square foot to $116.15 per square foot, meaning a permit for a 2,000-square-foot home would cost about $400 more.

A permit for the same size house now costs $2,466, a cost that would rise to $2,864.

Mary Ellen Winborn, DCD director, said she is grateful the commissioners approved her proposal to fund code enforcement and improve customer service at the permit center.

It’s the first time DCD has raised its valuation since 2011, she said.

The department hasn’t increased staffing, but is continuing to see an increase in permits issued. In 2012, the department issued 670 permits, a number that climbed to 934 in 2016.

She said by adding an administrative floater, it will help DCD process permits quicker and will free up time for another planner to focus on water availability.

Winborn has repeatedly asked commissioners this year to fund more code enforcement staffing to help the county’s lone code enforcement officer who has struggled to keep up with an increasing caseload.

This year alone there have been 215 code enforcement cases, she said. Of those, 60 percent are still active. Last year, code enforcement cleared 103 of 173 cases.

With the new funds, DCD will be able to hire a code enforcement administrative specialist, a part-time field officer, a permit center administrative floater and fund additional hearings with the county’s hearing examiner.

She said the code enforcement administrative specialist would function as an “in-house” code enforcement officer who can take calls, write letters and coordinate enforcement efforts.

That will allow the field officers to devote the majority of their time working in the field on solving problems.

Winborn said that by using the hearing examiner for the “low-hanging-fruit” cases, she hopes to encourage compliance.

“The hearing examiner could take a lot of that load off,” she said.

To-date, the code enforcement officer has focused on voluntary compliance, an approach that hasn’t worked for some of the most serious cases.

County Administrator Jim Jones said there would need to be consequences for people who are found to not be in compliance.

“If we’re going to give them a stern talking to … they’re just going to thumb their nose at us,” he said.

Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Alvarez said the hearing examiner would be able to attach liens to properties.

He said the hope would be that providing notice of a hearing and a potential $3,000 fine would be enough for most people to fix whatever their issue is.

Peach said the county is willing to work with people who want to clean their properties and that officials understand that if money is the issue, adding additional fines in some cases will make cleanups more difficult.

Alvarez said there are some cases, which he called “perfect storms,” that are best handled through superior court. Through superior court, officials can be granted search warrants and eventually get a warrant of abatement.

That would allow the county to clean up the property, he said.

“It’s a judicial document that says you can clean the property at the owner’s expense,” he said. “It’s a more complicated process, but it’s more powerful.”

Peach said that code enforcement is an issue that many people in the county have dealt with for quite awhile, adding he knows of some cases that are several years old.

“People are going to be looking forward to the change,” he said. “We may have spent six months figuring this out, but the reality is we figured it out.”

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsuladailynews.com.

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