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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Work Permits and Working On Tumbling Buildings In Portsmouth

A couple of years ago, I talked a close friend of mine into helping me re-roof my carport. He had the skills and knowledge for the job while I was the resident and his assistant helpmate. I diligently traveled to city hall to get my required work permit before beginning construction. I have always done so when remodeling because I know the permit is required by law.

There, I was greeted with a form and asked to fill it out. On the form, there was a question about having any help with the job. Since my friend was assisting me with details and labor, I answered "yes" to the question of having assistance for the project.

When I finished my form, I turned it into the lady at the front desk. She looked at it and then asked if I was paying my friend to help. I answered honestly and said: "Of course I'm paying him. If my own sons helped me with this job, I would naturally pay them for their time and effort." Immediately, I was directed to consult with the engineer.

After explaining my project to him, he told me this home improvement was considered a contracting job and that my helper was not on the "approved list" of contractors. He threatened me with a large fine -- thousands of dollars -- if I had his help, and he told me how terribly illegal my plans were because of a city ordinance about contracting.

Needless to say, I was shocked. I went home feeling like a criminal. It took another round of talks with the city official to decide finally that my small project was being done by me as a private improvement. I paid for my building permit and left feeling I had been castigated for simply "doing the right thing." I was told to post my permit and be prepared as "someone" would be on my property to check the progress. Instead of feeling good about improving my property, I felt as if I was some kind of lowlife for doing the work.

Thanks to the help of my friend, we accomplished our work. Together, we roofed my carport in just a few days. And, afterwords, I thought about the hassle at city hall and decided "I guess some people just lie and avoid any conflicts." I really wondered who, besides a potential "violating criminal" like me, even acquired a building permit for such a small project. Oh well. Time marched on, and the new roof was an improvement to my residence.

Imagine my interest and consternation in the latest news from city council.

According to the Daily Times, at Monday night’s Portsmouth City Council meeting, City Manager Derek Allen discussed the city’s ongoing problem with falling buildings.

As everyone knows by now, last week a second building collapsed in the historic Boneyfiddle district of Portsmouth. In a spectacular failure, the former Beaumont building (now reportedly owned by Tim Wolfe) at Court and Front Streets caved in, throwing bricks across the street and flattening a car parked nearby. Thank God no one was injured as the huge structure came tumbling down.

Monday, the City Manager admitted the city had a lack of employees to help prevent such disasters.

“We don’t have a sufficient Building Department that is able to monitor or to look at buildings,” Allen said. “However, there’s a reason why the city and every other city have building permits and plans are submitted so they can look at the structural review of plans. When that building collapsed there was no building permit. No blueprints had been submitted although major alterations to the structure of the building were apparently being performed.”

(Frank Lewis. "City Mgr. calls permits essential." Portsmouth Daily Times. December 09, 2014)

Allen told council that a new roof was installed on that building over Thanksgiving break without a building permit.

“The public has the belief when they go into buildings that they have been inspected and approved and none of that occurred on that building,” Allen said. “I’m thankful that no one was killed the workers that were in there working. I can’t stress enough that is the reason why to require building permits and plan approval. That’s the reason why we do it. We’re not trying to discourage any investment in our downtown historic district. There’s a lot of new activity going on and we want to encourage that, but there’s a reason why we require building permits.”

No one secured a building permit for this major renovation of a downtown commercial structure? 


I believe all residents and contractors should acquire building permits before roofing a structure. How could such a big, industrial project such as roofing the Court and Front property occur without the city -- a block or two away -- having checked for a required permit?

For that matter, how could the owner and the city ignore the eyesore and the potential danger inherent in such an old, dilapidated building? If injuries had occurred as the building crumbled, I imagine lawsuits would bankrupt the derelict parties. Two buildings have fallen. What does this all say about the probability of another disaster that could be even worse?

As a city resident and taxpayer, I accept my responsibilities. Still, I wonder how "things" like this last oversight can continue to threaten the lives of people. There are other structures in Portsmouth that cry for inspection and needed renovation or demolition. If the city cannot enforce ordinances that deal with public safety, maybe they prefer to worry more about private citizens hiring expensive contractors than about policing businesses and commercial properties.

There should be some priority applied here. I think the city should require owners of commercial property in town to keep their structures safe and attractive while the city government should concentrate immediately on seeing that any apparent danger or eyesore is quickly eliminated. To ignore the "fatter cats" while castigating the general public is unfair.

I guess I understand that not filing building permits is part of a nagging problem, yet I cannot blame dereliction upon violating the codes or short staffing that cannot perform basic duties. Can you imagine the tremendous responsibility here? Can you fathom what a major storm or a tornado might do to other weak commercial structures in Portsmouth?

Who in the hell is supposed to be sure things are "up to code"? I guess city hall has some contractors on a list that can help ... IF the owners acquire a work permit. I think it goes further.

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