Illogic & Waste at the Building Department

This is my story of my recent experience with the Building Department for Mendocino County. It is probably not going to be a surprising story for anyone who has had to deal with this department but if my experience is typical, things really need to change.

Before I get started, I want to say that almost all of the individual people I met with along the way were very helpful, friendly and often as confused as I was that I was having to do what I had to do. In fact, my first impression when I set foot in the office on Low Gap Road in Ukiah was one of helpful, friendly staff at the ready to assist. It’s not the people, or most of them, that are broken, but the bureaucracy that they have to work with that needs mending.

A little while ago I moved into my new space at the Live Oak Building in Boonville. Once I was settled I completed the paperwork to renew my business license. As this was a new location, I was obliged to write a check for a little over $300 to Planning and Building so that they could inspect the new location, on top of the regular $40 for the license itself. I did this and a few weeks passed before I received my license along with a copy of an outstanding demolition permit. Included was a note that I was required to reinstate the permit or provide a reason why it should not be reinstated within 30 days of receipt.

Backing up a little, the answer to your question is that no, I did not do the thing I tell all of my clients to do — I did not go to Ukiah while I was in escrow to make sure all the permits were in place for the Live Oak property. Why not? Because I knew that all the work had been done with permits and had been told that they had been signed off. Good enough for me, so I thought. 

So, now I have a four year old building permit for the demolition of a building that was clearly not only demolished, but had been replaced entirely by a new structure (the only remaining parts of the old Live Oak are the interior beams). Logic dictates that whomever the building inspector was at the time knew of the demolition and rebuild — he or she had to see this fact in person every time she or he came to do an inspection of the construction.

My first reaction was to call the person who wrote the note. I did, several times, and never received a call back. That left me no choice but to go to the office on Low Gap the next time I was in Ukiah.

I walked in, clearly thinking (wrongly, of course) that once I explained the situation and they opened their file to see the now years-old final on the new building that it would be a matter of course to realize that the original building was no longer in existence. With that realization, a quick signature and we’d be done, right? 

No.

I admit that I was a bit exasperated once I realized that this would not be a simple process. I agreed to their terms: pay $160 (plus the fee for using my credit card: $7 that goes to someone called govpaynet — I mean, why aren’t they using Square like everyone else?) and set up the appointment for the inspection. 

But when I mentioned to these people — not the regular worker bees, who understood my argument but who were powerless to do anything — the management types with the power to do something, that there was no logical sense in inspecting a demolition of a building that was so far gone that a new building stood in its place, I was told straight up that it was logical — to them! In this instance, the only thing any of them cared about was their precious paper trail.

I was given a date to call the office and set up the inspection of the demolition (yes, a date for a date). I left after an hour (!) disgruntled and aghast.

Fast forward two weeks. I get a call from the business occupying the front of the Live Oak letting me know there was a building inspector there. Now, I’m not going to complain about any of this — the fact that this man showed up, without my calling, on the day I was supposed to call to set up his visit. No, this delighted me. I met with the inspector, another friendly, helpful (but helpless) man. He asked me what it was he was supposed to look at and I told him he was standing in it. He looked completely puzzled. I explained the back story. He shook his head and signed the paperwork. Now the powers that be in the Building Department can sleep at night — their precious paperwork is in order.

What is so infuriating is the ridiculous waste of a lot of people’s time this was. If, for example, it was the final construction permit on this property that needed to be inspected, fine, bring them in — do it. I get that. But this was a “demolition” permit, so old that the new building had been in place and signed off for years. It took someone time to pull the permits on this property when I got my business license renewed; it took me time to drive to Ukiah, be “helped,” and drive home; the building inspector had to drive over, spend time with me and then drive back. Never mind the pointless $160 I had to pay — that likely barely covered the inspector’s time or fuel. It’s that a logical, thoughtful response would have saved everyone a lot of time (and money).

It makes one wonder who the County is working for — people like me, who pay property taxes, pay agriculture taxes, pay business taxes? Or are they simply working to dot their i’s and cross their t’s?

Why doesn’t the Building Department look at the file every time a new permit or inspection is called for? Why wasn’t this open permit caught during the rest of the building and permitting process? 

I love Mendocino County, it’s been my home for all but 14 years of my life. In general, I’m happy to pay my taxes that go to the County because I know this is a poor County. But when logic is thrown out to cover a piece of paper, this is too much. Someone needs to look at the priorities of these offices that are paid for by the taxpayers and that are supposed to serve those same people.

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