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County looks at after-the-fact rule violations

Buyer beware.

That's the advice a Park Rapids homebuilder offers to prospective purchasers of lake property. Why? Because Hubbard County commissioners are seeing a myriad of willful shoreland ordinance violations - and the builder is seeing even more dotting the landscape.

Exasperated commissioners at Wednesday's board meeting briefly discussed revising the shoreline ordinances to penalize contractors who build without making sure homeowners have their permits in place at the time of construction.

Presently the ordinance states that "any one" who violates an ordinance should be penalized, but that might unfairly target builders when it's the homeowners' responsibility to get the permit, board members noted, immediately backing off of their threat to hold builders liable.

Commissioners voiced their frustration in trying to keep noncompliance issues to a minimum while sending out a message that it's not okay to violate them.

The shoreland issue arose when Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf asked for permission to forward two separate ordinance violations to the county attorney for prosecution.

One case involves multiple illegal structure violations; the other involves shoreland alterations and wetland violations. Commissioners readily gave permission to send the violations on for prosecution. Names of alleged violators are confidential until formal charges are filed, Buitenwerf said.

"When this kind of stuff happens, do you find that they just don't know or they proceed without permission?" asked commissioner Dick Devine.

"Only a small percent can claim honest ignorance," Buitenwerf said. "They think the county won't find out or we'll never catch them."

Buitenwerf said many homeowners take the position that the county can "come after me and by the time you do" the issue will have resolved itself - or the homeowner will simply pay the penalty and go on.

"Do they do their own work or hire carpenters who will work knowing there's no permit?" Devine queried.

"It's about 50-50," Buitenwerf responded. "Some contractors are very good. Others don't care."

But Buitenwerf said there's really no penalty, even though the wording of the ordinances might suggest otherwise, that would hold the contractor liable for a nonconforming structure when a homeowner commissioned the work.

"And these are cases where you've exhausted all reasonable efforts?" asked commissioner Lyle Robinson. When Buitenwerf responded in the affirmative, Robinson let his frustration show. "A lot of people come here and build and say, 'I'll pay the double fine.'"

Buitenwerf said if the structure meets all setback requirements, the homeowner will usually pay a penalty and that's the end of the enforcement action.

But he said state officials will ask courts to order homeowners to remove all or parts of nonconforming structures in those cases, and courts have complied.

Steve Johnson, part owner of Gartner-Johnson Construction of Park rapids, said his company would never proceed on a project without a building permit in place. "We can't afford not to for this very reason," Johnson said. "If we do something that's illegal or not to code we're liable for it. Period. At least in our business I don't want to have to deal with getting sued."

Johnson did not attend the meeting, but responded afterward to questions about whether contractors should be penalized - and how many builders may be skirting the law.

"If there's issues out there and illegal structures out there, obviously somebody had to put them up," Johnson said. "That's a self-answering question.

"I can tell you that if the county had building inspectors, that would curtail a ton of problems and a ton of complaints," he said. "By law we're bound to build to state code; however there's no enforcement of the code except in the city of Park Rapids.

"So anybody can pretty much do anything," Johnson said. "Legally they're not supposed to, but we see it all the time, things that should have never ever ever been done. People are paying good money for these properties and they're just shooting in the dark for what they're getting."

Johnson said the majority of problems and complaints come from homeowners who discover mold, structural problems, rot and non-conforming structures or uses.

"If there's inspections it wouldn't happen, following the code the way it's supposed to be," he said. "It's a big issue in our mind. The other side of the coin is that people think they've moved up here to do what they want without the regulation but they're the first to scream if something goes wrong.

"The solution, in my opinion, is to delegate money to hire an inspector full-time - or two, whatever it takes," he said. "Money's tight. They have them in big cities, larger markets. There's got to be a reason for it, just like zoning.

"Short of coming around and having inspections and controlled growth, it's gonna run amok and always be problems and issues."