When Curry County issued a press release on Oct. 8 about an amnesty program for unpermitted structures, it was overwhelmed with an avalanche of responses, prompting officials to assign a dedicated phone number to answer questions from the public and to process amnesty applications.
“It’s going crazy,” Community Development Director Julie Schmelzer said when The Pilot called to ask questions about who should worry about obtaining amnesty.
The recent buzz of activity came about after the Curry County Board of Commissioners approved an amnesty program at its meeting Oct. 2 to encourage people to voluntarily come to the county to obtain the necessary planning and building permits before the county imposed penalties.
“It’s really about applying a common-sense rule, but basically it all comes down to dollars and safety,” Schmelzer said. The county is getting serious about unpermitted structures, getting them on the tax rolls, and ensuring they meet state codes.
State building codes are based on the national Uniform Building Code, which strives to ensure that all buildings meet health and safety standards that safeguard the lives of users and their neighbors.
The county is concerned about levying property taxes that reflect the true assessed value of properties. When a permit is issued, the Curry County Assessor’s Office uses the data to assess improvements on the property.
In a presentation to the Curry County Board of Commissioners in the spring of 2019, County Assessor Jim Kolen reported on the taxes foregone by unpermitted development. He estimated the total assessed value for non-permitted new construction during the last five years was $14.5 million.
According to Kolen, the tax revenue from those missing assessments amounted to approximately $127,000 to all taxing districts, of which approximately $8,500 goes to the county.
“Unpermitted properties are subject to the payment of an omitted property tax on the unpermitted structures for the current year, plus the previous five years if the structure has existed that long,” Kolen said. “So it is important to notify the assessor how long the structure has existed.”
Permit fees pay for staffing the county’s Building Safety Division, which accepts and reviews building permit applications, reviews construction plans, issues building permits and conducts field inspections of work to determine compliance with state construction structural, mechanical, plumbing and electrical codes.
Building permit costs are based on a combination of factors, such as the number of plumbing and electrical fixtures combined with the valuation of the building project.
The county recently raised rates for permits with regard to safety, to align with rates in neighboring counties, Schmelzer said. The fee schedule for permits is available on the county’s website.
According to the fee schedule, permit fees for a structure valued at $100,000 and above start at $866.40 for the first $100,000, plus $4.38 for each additional $1,000 or fraction thereof. Plan review (when applicable) is 65% of the structural permit fee.
Commissioner Sue Gold clarified at the Oct. 2 commissioners’ meeting that when people come forward through the amnesty program, homes would need to be inspected, be brought up to code, and that the homeowners would be responsible for back taxes.
People who developed without permits must come in and obtain the proper permits, and still must meet codes, but will not be assessed a penalty from the Community Development Department, which oversees permitting, Schmelzer said in the county’s press release.
The county is offering amnesty until April 1, 2020. After that date, when unpermitted development is discovered, owners could face strict penalties.
What those penalties will be is still to be decided at the commissioners’ Dec. 18 meeting, and those fees will become effective in 2020, Schmelzer said. It could be double the permit fees, or one and a half the original permit fee. However, people can still apply for amnesty through Apr. 1, 2020.
In years past, the county enforced permit and code violations only if citizens filed reports or complaints about a structure, or if a county employee spotted something that was dramatically unsafe, Schmelzer said.
The county responded to complaints when staffing allowed, but since the Great Recession, officials didn’t receive many complaints nor did they issue citations, because there were no penalties in place.
The county hired a full-time code enforcement officer last year, said Schmelzer, and has recently decided to add another full-time enforcement officer.
Most of the complaints the county receives are for new construction that is conducted without obtaining permits.
Schmelzer said the intention is not to go after structures someone has purchased that have been in existence for some time, or that may have been built or remodeled before codes were applicable. Those structures are already on the tax rolls, and in applying a common-sense rule, have already stood the test of time in terms of safety.
“We’ve seen people not be able to sell their homes, or secure mortgages, because their homes were not built to code. We’ve seen seven-figure homes not appear on the tax rolls because people didn’t get permits. It’s time to make sure everybody is playing by the same rules, homes are built to code, and everyone is paying their fair share of taxes,” said Curry County Commissioner Christopher Paasch, who proposed the program.
During the Board of Commissioners meeting when the amnesty program was approved, Paasch referenced Kolen’s presentation last spring that showed “severe violations” of permits having been issued for garages that were now being used as two- or three-bedroom homes. Schmelzer even mentioned a home built on an ocean bluff that was not permitted.
“Jim Kolen alerted us to how bad the problem is,” Schmelzer said. “It’s in the hundreds.”
Schmelzer acknowledged that part of the problem in creating adequate housing has been the lack of qualified contractors in the area. The county has requested that Southwest Oregon Community College in Brookings teach more trades to meet the needs of developers who have been unable to find local people to hire. The costs of projects would be less expensive if they did not need to bring workers from out of the area.
According to Schmelzer, “The amnesty program is not available to those who have already been issued warnings or citations. Rather, it applies to those the county has not contacted yet.
“After April 1, 2020, the county will aggressively seek compliance to try and ensure safe housing and that everyone pays their fair share of taxes. We really don’t have a choice, and it is only fair to those that do pay taxes.”
The county adopted an emergency housing declaration in August that seeks to ensure not only housing for all, but safe housing for all, according to Schmelzer.
“The safety of our residents and visitors, and the enjoyment of and quality of life associated with the use of property by residents and visitors, is a top priority for this Board of Commissioners,” she said.
“This program would benefit the community by assuring safe structures and diminishing fire and other risks to our community.”
For more information about the amnesty program, call 541-247-3227.