If you’re planning to build or expand without the necessary county permit, think again.

The Hubbard County Board plans to hike its fee schedule – specifically, the after-the-fact (ATF) variance fee.

Hubbard County Environmental Services Office (ESO) Director Eric Buitenwerf told commissioners on Tuesday, Oct. 12 there has been a steady rise in ATF variance requests over the past five years.

The standard variance application fee is $275, which includes a $46 charge to cover the county recorder’s costs. The ATF application fee is $500.

These are too low, Buitenwerf said, and are no longer covering administrative costs. Fees have not been increased in over a decade, so they have not kept up with inflation.

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As of September 2021, there have been 15 ATF variances, or 25 percent of the whole, he continued.

In addition, Buitenwerf said there is a growing trend among landowners to commit multiple rather than single violations. For example, within this year’s 15 ATFs, there were 34 different items that the Hubbard County Board of Adjustment (BOA) had to vet.

The current fee incentivizes landowners to seek variances on multiple items, as there is no cap on the number of items allowed, Buitenwerf explained. In a written report, he said, “This increases application and procedural complexity, and staff and BOA workload, and thus the error potential.”

Buitenwerf said, “So we’re falling behind in terms of our historical objective – that is, having our permit fees cover the cost of operating the board of adjustment.” In 2020, the BOA was nearly $8,000 in the red.

County commissioner Char Christenson asked if landowners are simply naive or “it’s such a small dollar amount, they just go ahead.”

“We’re seeing the latter,” Buitenwerf replied.

The worst case this summer, he said, involved a local resort that sought ATF approval of 13 items – decks and storage sheds – on a natural environment lake.

A small percentage doesn’t know any better, Buitenwerf said, but the majority “banks on ‘I built it. I’m going to go plead mercy and ask for forgiveness rather than get permission on the front end.’”

Buitenwerf recommended raising the standard variance fee to $500 and the ATF fee to $1,000 as well as charging “per item.” An item would be a house or an accessory structure, he noted.

He also suggested doubling permit fees, which would result in the highest fee (i.e. dwelling) being $200.

County commissioner Tom Krueger recalled building a cabin in 1997 and paying a $100 permit fee.

Five hundred dollars is a huge jump, “but I wonder if we erred in keeping it too low too long,” Christenson said.

“I totally recognize we have a differing ability to pay among our taxpayers,” Buitenwerf said. “I don’t want it to be something where only the haves are able to go through the process.”

County Administrator Jeff Cadwell inquired about instances where someone buys a home and discovers they must get a variance to bring it up to zoning codes. “It’s not their fault. Is that a situation that comes up a lot?” he asked.

Buitenwerf said it’s not a common occurrence, but if there is a cooperative landowner, then ESO has discretion to waive the ATF fee.

The board plans to hold a Nov. 16 public hearing about adopting new county fees, including ESO’s proposals.