Letters to the Editor

Letter | City Hall permit process flawed

I read your (Suzanne Lane's) article in the Mercer Island Reporter about our city’s building department on June 29, 2011. Thank you for sharing your experience to all Islanders. Your voice represented many who kept quiet and went along through the building permitting process. All Islanders should know that our City Hall is changing. It is no longer friendly and helpful anymore. I believe that many homeowners and developers on Mercer Island have had similar bad experiences and were frustrated about the current system. Some contractors are not willing to work here as well. It is a hostile environment in the City Hall. There are many road blocks and barriers ahead.

Usually, city officials and reviewers provide very brief and general information on upcoming projects. There is no special session offered by the City of Mercer Island before your design like the City of Seattle. There is no one to help you to identify specific issues that you might face at your particular site. Instead, the city shifted the responsibilities to your consultants. You will meet a group of city reviewers at a "pre-permit application" meeting at the time you have already finished your design. In the review process, the reviewers have the "got you" attitude. For anyone who wants to start any building project on Mercer Island, he/she should prepare to have a team to go with you at the pre-permit application meeting. Your team should include attorney, surveyor, soil engineer, civil engineer, architect, structural engineer, landscape architect and arborist. Suzanne’s statement of "start over again" is exactly how the current Mercer Island building department operates. Your time and expenditure is a foreign language to the reviewers because they simply don’t care. They don’t know how to help. They are incapable of helping. There is no accountability in the MI building department. You are unable to find or have accountable representatives. There is no one in charge of projects.

The following are my stories:

1. One day, I called a plumber who worked on a neighbor’s house just two months ago. When he heard "the job is on Mercer Island," he immediately replied, "Thank you for the call, but no thanks for working on Mercer Island again." What’s wrong with this picture? A contractor who will forgo job opportunities simply because of his difficult encounter at our City Hall.

2. The Building Department has a "two-week" review policy. It applies to all projects new or in progress. If the city inspector felt that you need a permit review for minor changes during the construction, you have to stop work and wait for two weeks or longer. Your extra time and expenditure are not their concerns. Our short building season is not their concern.

3. Building Code Change: A stairwell is counted twice the square feet in a house’s finished area because the stairwell shows up on two different floors. However, there is only one stairwell. If the building has a high ceiling open area above the foyer/entry area, you are required to double count that area. This rule is new and unreasonable. This can be more than 5.4 percent of the actual building’s finish area; thus more permit fee and more property tax annually!

4. For building on a very flat site, at an initial meeting with the city, an owner was told to build a new storm system tied to the city’s storm line. Based on the city’s map, there is no city storm line available in front of the site. The owner hired a civil engineer to work with the city reviewer. After the second meeting, permission was granted to tie into the city’s storm catch basin (CSCB). This closest CSCB is 300+ feet away. The city requires the owner not only to install a new 300+ feet long storm line but also size-up the pipe enough for another eight properties. The city wants private property owners to build 300+ feet of city’s infrastructure! Yet there is more! After all the surveying, soil and civil engineering for two months, the city still wants a "level one" study on the CSCB to prove it can handle the new storm line. Wait a minute here! Now we have to do the city’s work? The city reviewer’s response is that other owners did it, so you have to do it. After thousands of dollars, the city cannot provide the owner any certainty if the storm line is allowed.

All the fiasco happens after the required building permit application, which means that after paying for the building permit fees prior to the storm drain permit application, you have to wait for the storm permit review when you are holding the building permit to start construction. At this point, the owner is held "hostage" and is willing to do whatever the reviewer wants. Meanwhile, the required studies and the new storm line are to increase the building construction cost by 130 percent. In the past, homeowners and developers were quiet in accepting the city’s demands. City reviewers are used to willing Islanders to pay whatever they asked for.

5. Furthermore, city building code defines "impervious area" as area under the eave line. They believed that the rain water will go down straight to the ground and will not migrate to the area inside of the eave line. Common sense tells us that rain does not fall perfectly straight down and rain water will spread in all directions. The City of Seattle allows at least 18 inches inside the eave line as pervious space. Obviously, the rain water behaves differently on Mercer Island.

To all Islanders, we need to inform our City Council it is time to change. We all pay property taxes. We need common sense and customer service. Just as in Suzanne’s case, the city wants to change her water meter, which she already had but she has to pay for it. What happened to the property tax we paid for infrastructure? Why do we have to pay for the infrastructure again?

Feel free to contact me at mernllc@hotmail.com, or express you concerns to your City Councilmen.

Robert Hsueh

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