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Violation for an Unpermitted Structure? Here’s How to Keep It

There are many times a structure is built without first obtaining a valid building permit from the local authorities. Weekend, spur of the moment, impulse type building is one of the most common beginnings of an unpermitted structure. Picture a group of friends at camp thinking it would be nice to build a deck on the front of the camp, a bunkhouse for the kids, etc. The lumber store is open, why not? 

Of course, there are other reasons why a permit was overlooked. Perhaps the contractor assumed the property owner took out a town building permit. Maybe the planning board approved a plan showing several condominiums to be built. Often times structures are built off-site and delivered to a property (shed, mobile home, modular home) and no one involved with the project obtains a building permit. Building renovations and conversions (house to apartments for instance) are also done without approval from the local municipality.

If you just plain think that you can build something without a permit and the construction will not be noticed, chances are good that eventually you will be caught. Neighbors complain (noise), code officers drive by going to other properties and tax assessors visit to update the tax cards and noticing buildings and structures not on the current inventory of taxable items. 

Notice of Violation

Being the landowner, you are most often the person to receive an official notice of violation and an order to stop work and/or begin corrective actions. This notice will typically come to you via registered or certified mail or from a deputy sheriff in your county if the mail is not accepted or is returned as undeliverable. The city or town has a duty to legally notify the landowner and needs proof of delivery. You may also find a notice taped to the main entrance of a building. 

If you are from a small town, you may receive a phone call from the code enforcement officer asking you to apply for a building permit after-the-fact instead of a formal legal notice. Most land use ordinances make provisions for after-the-fact permitting which typically will cost you double the regular permit fee as a penalty for not first obtaining a permit. This action can only be taken if the unpermitted activity would be allowed as a permitted activity.

Within the written notice of violation will be an explanation of the allegations of wrongdoing, a citation of the specific ordinance being violated, a request to stop work and a demand of corrective action. You will generally have a period of time to correct the alleged violation or contest the violation notice with an appellate body, usually a board of appeals but sometimes at the local court. 

It is important to act promptly upon receiving a notice of violation. The amount of time to contest the town or city’s allegation is short, usually thirty days. 

What Next?

Depending on the severity of the violation, the corrective action could be as simple as obtaining a permit and paying the requisite fees and submitting to inspections by the town. For situations where inspections were not done within a building as required (framing, internal plumbing, electrical, insulation, chimney, venting, etc.) and the sheetrock has been installed, you may be asked to remove sheetrock to allow for inspections of hidden pipes, wires, ducts, etc. That normally would have been done as the building was constructed. 

More severe violations like structures within a required setback area will require that part of the structure that can not comply with the land use ordinance be removed. Life safety code violations like not enough exits, exit egress windows in bedrooms not large enough or not enough alarms will require you to correct the deficiencies. These would typically be caught as construction progressed and was inspected if a permit had first been obtained. 

Less frequent violations of land use ordinances relate to the division of a residential structure. For instance, you own a large house and put in partition walls dividing the structure into three apartment units. Most cities and towns would consider the conversion of a structure from single-family home to a multi-family home a matter for the planning board to review and approve. There are also many life safety codes that need to be complied with which often get overlooked. 

You Don’t Have to Navigate Violations Alone

At Herrick & Salsbury, we can help you keep your unpermitted structure. We may have to determine first if the new structure complies with any setback requirements, maximum lot coverage requirements or maximum allowed square footage. We can communicate to the town on your behalf and work with the town or city, usually through the code enforcement officer, to bring the unpermitted structure into compliance. If a planning board permit is needed for the activity, we can prepare an application for the planning board to consider and review the application with the planning board.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can I add an addition onto my camp or cottage if it is too close to the lake or waterbody?

Yes, provided that the addition is no closer to the waterbody and no closer to the property line if the property line setback does not comply with the current ordinance. There are limitations, and those limitations depend on the town in which the property is located. 

Can I convert my non-conforming big old house in the city into rental apartments?

That depends on many factors. This situation could be considered what is known as a change in use of a non-conforming structure. The structure can still remain if the other requirements of the life safety codes, building codes and zoning requirements can be met. The number of parking spaces available, whether or not multi-family structures (defined as more than two families)  are allowed in the zone you are in, whether or not there is an adequate number of fire escapes provided for, whether or not inter-connected fire alarm systems can be installed are all questions the town will ask. This request could also require planning board approval.