Permission ignored

April 20, 1996|By Antero Pietila

BALTIMOREANS are not stupid. They recognize when a regulatory system has collapsed -- and go around it.

The building-permit process is such a mess that a knowledgeable former top city enforcement official estimates that ''as much as 75 percent of the work in the city is done without permits.'' This is understandable, he says. ''I don't think the process can work. I don't think the process is structured in a way it can work. The city should rethink the whole process from the ground up.''

Under Baltimore's cumbersome regulations, fee-based permits are needed for almost all kinds of repair and construction work, aside from interior painting. (If scraping is involved, a permit is needed for that, too.) Yet many contractors and homeowners circumvent this paperwork altogether. The chances of getting caught are slim to none and penalties light. As a consequence, handymen and amateurs are doing plumbing and electrical work that ought to be performed only by licensed specialists.

Baltimore's permit process developed by happenstance since the city was incorporated 200 years ago.

Good reasons may have originally existed for many cumbersome requirements, but they may no longer be valid. Strict regulations concerning chimney flues, for example, date back to great fires that ravaged the city from 1796 through the monumental blaze of 1904.

In recent times, disregarding the various requirements has become so widespread that the whole process ought to be restudied and streamlined. Throughout the city, major construction is going on without valid permits. City inspectors are either too overburdened or unconcerned to do anything about this state of affairs. The more marginal the neighborhood, the laxer the enforcement.

Case in point

A case in point is the conversion of four rowhouses in the first block of South Fulton Avenue into a 14-bed halfway house. Even though the city and the state are spending close to $1 million on the project, the non-profit Fayette House either never obtained all the required permits or operated on lapsed permits.

''We are just dismayed with the developer and architect and the abandon with which they dealt with the permit process,'' said Philip Hildebrandt, of the Union Square Association, who complained about non-compliance to the city Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation.

His complaint concerned the project's failure to follow preservation guidelines. But that seemed to be among the least of irregularities at Fayette House.

A hearing last week discovered that although the rehab is nearly complete, the four properties had never been consolidated, and that construction work proceeded in violation of city code

regulations. And even though close to $250,000 will be spent on rehabilitating each of the four rowhouses, they will not have an entrance that meets the Americans With Disabilities Law requirements.

Fayette House backers made a big deal at the hearing about their organization being a struggling non-profit group with a limited budget. To their credit, board members of the commission took a tough line, ordering the project to conform with historic-preservation guidelines.

Referring to the many building and design professionals making money on the project, one board member concluded: ''There are people there who do not see it as a non-profit process but a for-profit process involving a non-profit.''

The options for the city ought to be clear: Either enforce current regulations and penalize the violators or get rid of the unnecessary red tape. The current system is unsatisfactory on both counts.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/20/96

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