Hubbard County raises fees; prompts discussion over shoreland issues
A public hearing to raise some Hubbard County fees quickly turned into a referendum on policing shoreland violations.
The issue of raising fees has been a difficult one that commissioners have grappled with for years.
The county board doesn't want to make money off fees, especially in hard times, commissioners have said repeatedly in the past. Fees should only cover the actual cost of the services rendered.
The shoreland issue arose when the Environmental Services Office asked to increase certain permitting and inspection fees, along with fees to obtain variances and after-the-fact permit fees.
"I feel they don't go far enough," Hubbard County COLA president Dan Kittilson suggested. The Environmental Services Office needs more revenues to conduct more inspections and enforcement of shoreland rules, he said.
He said the county has a mission to "apply and enforce state laws in shoreland management."
Hubbard County is well below its adjoining counties on charging fees for services rendered in building and remodeling lakeshore properties, COLA member Bill Cowman said. He urged the board to table the hearing until Coalition of Lake Association members could work with the county in setting fees that recoup the actual costs of working with homeowners in the planning stages and inspecting work later.
Commissioner Kathy Grell questioned if the county could place the same type of scrutiny on homebuilding as the city's, where inspectors come several times to view a property under construction.
But they are mainly policing building codes, the board agreed, not land use.
Grell wondered if the county fees, the lowest in the region, could recoup the cost of inspection and enforcement services and how many more personnel it would take to accomplish the job.
She insisted more enforcement on the front end of the lakeshore building process would allow the county to take a proactive approach rather than dealing with after-the-fact violations and court challenges.
"If we're issuing building permits and not going out to see what they're doing why are we even issuing building permits?" she questioned.
"Are they sneaking a bigger closer building (near the lake) because they know no one will come out and look at it?"
Commissioner Dick Devine said while it might be "wonderful to have one, the enforcement's going to cost a fortune. You gotta pay somebody to do it."
Board chair Greg Larson asked, "If every building permit had to be inspected how many people would you need to do that?"
A whistle went up in the audience.
Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf said currently his office issues 250 building permits annually. At the zenith of the construction boom, it was close to 600. The office does not go out to inspect lake properties once a permit is issued, he said. There's simply not the manpower or time.
Depending on "the degree of detail" required, Environmental Services would have to add a minimum of two personnel, Buitenwerf estimated.
Currently the office spends extensive time doing consulting services with builders, but does not have time for on-the-site inspections once a permit has been granted, Buitenwerf said.
"We weren't doing it just to get the higher fees," Kittilson said Thursday. "We're more concerned about the inspection, the follow-up, the enforcement, than we are about the fees.
"I would think they could identify the ones that could be checked out and I don't think it would be as much of a burden on their staff as they think it would, or that much of an increase in staff. If they do two a day (during the construction season) I would think they could identify or hit most of the ones that are bigger concerns.
With 313 lakes in the county, it still isn't possible to catch all the offenders, Grell suggested.
But the county could contract for inspection services.
"You want to be sure they're doing what they say they're doing," Cowman said of lakeshore builders
Cowman said on Long Lake, where he lives, the lakeshore is divided into six districts because of its large size.
Association members will begin cleaning the shoreline in their respective districts by fall, he said.
He suggested a lake association and county partnership such as this could keep the inspection costs down. COLA members spoke of $10,000 building permit fees in the metropolitan area.
"Nobody wants $10,000 fees," said COLA representative Chuck Diessner. He, too, suggested the county table the fee changes until it could better study the actual costs of what permit fees cover and what the county's needs and priorities are, not "assume facts."
Kittilson said the Long Lake neighborhood outreach has successfully built communities and a sense of stewardship on the lake, which is crucial to preservation.
"I don't want to table this," Grell said. The county needs to ensure that permits for lakeshore construction "are not encouraging bad behavior," but she noted, "I don't want to fee people out of building."
"We don't need to do what other counties do," commissioner Cal Johannsen said. "We need to do what's right for Hubbard County."
"You can really get carried away with this fee business and drive people elsewhere," Devine said.
County Assessor Bob Hansen said the county isn't without policing power. Neighbors turn in neighbors and township assessors regularly catch violations during their inspections, he said.
Building permits go into the assessor's overall property valuation system.
But building permit compliance is a separate issue from land use, he said.
In the end, the board adopted the new fee scheduled as presented, noting it was a "work in progress" that could be amended as need allows.
The fees, which will be posted on the county's website, pertain to services offered from the ESO, the Sheriff's Department and the Auditor/Treasurer. One fee actually decreased - the permit to carry a gun.
They will go into effect Jan. 1, 2012.