TAMPA — People all across Hillsborough County have built additions to houses and businesses without obtaining the required permits.
How widespread is the problem?
The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s office, using new imaging software that shows wide-ranging views of property, is finding millions of dollars worth of untaxed construction, from enclosed carports to an entire house appraisers didn’t know about.
“We’re going to do it for all 500,000 parcels in the county,” said Bill Ward, a spokesman for the property appraiser’s office. “We’re doing commercial too, and we’re finding a lot of stuff.”
The scofflaws are saving themselves the money they’d spend on permits and perhaps on the costs of better construction materials and methods. But they’re also risking the safety of their families, friends or customers, county officials say. Pulling a building permit triggers inspections and reviews that ensure compliance with building codes.
In other words, permits prevent shoddy construction.
Unpermitted construction also doesn’t show up on the tax rolls, depriving local governments of dollars needed for police and fire protection, schools, parks and libraries.
A hotbed of this unlicensed activity appears to be the working class community of Palm River, southeast of Tampa. David Moore, an activist there, documented five houses within one or two blocks of his home that were built without proper permits.
“It’s very evident when somebody’s building, sawing,” Moore said, explaining how he found out about the work. “I checked on these properties. It’s amazing what I found.”
The county’s building code compliance section confirmed that building permits were never issued for additions and out-buildings at three of the homes Moore brought to the Tribune’s attention. Owners of the other two houses obtained permits after the construction was started because someone had complained to code enforcement.
“We advise them they can get an after-the-fact permit,” said Lois Williams, manager of building code compliance for the county. “We always work with them to try to get them to come into compliance.”
One of the homes where no permits were issued was 503 Winham St., where a carport was enclosed to make another room. The owner, Willie Smith, said the work occurred before he and his wife bought the house in November 2003.
“You have to go back to when the house was new and go forward to know when it was put on there and whether it was legal or not,” Smith said.
Nevertheless, Smith and the owners of the other two houses without permits were sent notices saying they needed to get them. If they ignore the warnings, the county will start to fine them after 30 days. Fines can amount to $500 per violation.
“That (fine) normally prompts a response from the owner,” Williams said.
The house that Moore called the “most egregious” example of unlicensed activity in his neighborhood is 617 Winham, where a carport was enclosed and an entire second story built but never added to the tax rolls.
A spokesman for the property appraiser’s office said the property was inspected in January 2013 when the second story was unfinished so it was not listed as taxable value.
Moore said construction on the house went on for years in fits and starts. He first notified the county in 2008 because the roof and siding of the house were unfinished for at least a year. Debris littered the property, and a construction storage building sat outside for several years.
“It was an eyesore,” Moore said. “Those are only supposed to be temporary; they aren’t supposed to be there for years.”
County records show the building permit for the property expired in March 2009 with construction unfinished. Impatient with the response from the county, Moore called the office of then-Commissioner Kevin White in 2010.
White’s legislative aide, Cedric McCray, came out and asked for action by the code enforcement department, which deals with zoning violations, and building code compliance, which handles building code violations.
Both departments started inspections in August 2010. Code enforcement issued seven citations for the house, some for accumulations of debris and overgrowth of weeds.
Over the next two years, building code compliance dogged the owners, Margaret St. John and Lanny Priester, to complete the construction. In April 2011, St. John appeared before a special hearing master who gave the owners 90 days to get permits and inspections.
If they didn’t comply, fines of $100 per day would commence July 11, 2011.
Fines against the owners accumulated to $2,800 by December 2011. But that same month, a special hearing master slashed the fine to $15.42. Priester paid it two weeks later.
In a phone interview, Priester called the neighbors’ complaints about the house “total BS.”
“Code enforcement knows all about that stuff,” Priester said. “Whoever this SOB is needs to keep his nose in his own business. He ought to run for councilman on this street.”
Priester denied getting his permits “after the fact,” as reported by the building department.
“I’ve done no more work,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s been going on for one or six years.”
He ended the conversation abruptly.
Williams, the manager of building code compliance, said unpermitted construction happens in all neighborhoods — rich, poor, middle class. County inspectors are out looking for violations every day, she said, but they can’t go on private property or look over fences without permission.
From January to August, the building department issued $36,256 in fines for unpermitted construction, Williams said, and collected $67,829 in permit fees.
“We’re actively out there looking and following up on all the complaints we get,” she said. “If (inspectors) see it out there, they’re going to issue a notice of non-compliance.”