Johnstown increases building permit fees

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The Johnstown Town Board voted 4-1 Monday night to adopt a new town code fee schedule for 2022 that includes some increased fees, a few new permit categories and a new “triple fee” penalty for anyone found to have been “working without a permit.”

Town Board member Tim Rizzo was the lone no vote on the issue. Rizzo questioned whether the town should be changing fees or adding permit categories without a local law and a public hearing to amend the town code.

Building Inspector Todd Unislawski presented the board with his proposed 2022 Fee Schedule during Monday night’s meeting after giving his monthly report for the first 24 days of January, which showed there were nine new building permits, for an estimated $89,875 worth of work done on town properties, with $1,180 collected in fees.

Unislawski said his office also conducted seven fire inspections, reviewed six projects presented to the town Planning Board, one for the town Zoning Board of Appeals, and had no complaints, but, “two violations, both of which have been rectified.”

Unislawski then turned to the issue of proposed fee changes, and some criticisms of his proposal by Rizzo.

“I’d like to address a couple of concerns that were raised, solely by Mr. Rizzo, regarding my proposed fees,” Unislawski said. “The code enforcement office does have revenue built into its budget. We get that revenue from these fees. At the current time (my department’s revenue) has been budgeted for $20,000.”

Unislawski said the town’s revenues for permit fees have only seen one significant increase in recent years when there was an expansion at the CG Roxane Crystal Springs facility on Old Sweet Road. He said in 2021 his office issued 241 building permits on projects with an estimated value of $10.1 million, from which the town was able to charge $17,841.

“For 2020, we gave out the exact same number of building permits, however, the total fees collected was under $10,000, so that shows the difference in the types of projects that were going on (in 2021) as opposed to (2020),” he said. “Now, the proposed (2022) fees are the culmination of two years worth of work. That’s not something I sat down one night and said, ‘Oh, lets change these.’ I collaborated with surrounding officials. I even asked the Planning Board and Zoning Board officials.”

Unislawski said the increases are justified in part to help pay for the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals costs associated with some building projects, as well as the costs incurred by his office in the function of its duties.

Rizzo questioned whether the “triple fee” penalty for doing building work without a permit would result in Unislawski’s office policing the residents of the town to an unfair degree with “fines.”

Unislawski said the triple fee penalty would be a good deterrent, and he explained some of the difficulties of trying to enforce the town’s building permit rules.

“Somebody does a (new) roof, stopped one last week that was done — they had done half of the roof, had no permit on it and started doing it,” he said. “There’s no way to check it. Once the roof is done, the only way to (check it) is to climb up a ladder. We are looking for compliance, and sometimes you have to do this to get compliance.”

Unislawski said some towns in Fulton County, like the town of Caroga, have harsher penalties like a $250 fine for building without a permit.

Rizzo said he doesn’t understand how the town can enforce Unislawski’s proposed fee increases.

“You’ve been here for four years or so, and we’ve had these arguments about how we can’t even enforce the fine on mowing somebody’s lawn, unless we take them to court,” Rizzo said.

Unislawski said Town Attorney Leah Everhart has told him the town has the authority to raise the permit fees because they are user fees for services the town provides.

Everhart did not attend Monday’s Town Board meeting.

“I’d like to see that from Leah, because she hasn’t spoken to us about it, and you have [talked] to her, but she could have told the board that and she didn’t,” Rizzo said.

Unislawski said town residents may not want to pay higher fees, but the town has costs it needs to recoup and it’s not fair for all of the taxpayers to pay for the cost instead of the residents engaged in the new building activities.

“We have to charge, to do these jobs. It’s all part of it,” Unislawski said.

Rizzo said he thinks many residents will feel penalized by the increases.

Supervisor Jack Wilson defended Unislawski’s work on the fee change proposal.

“These are user fees, nobody is being penalized,” Wilson said, directing his comments to Rizzo. “I think it’s a good thing what Todd has done, spent a lot of time on it, talked about it several times over the last couple of years, going through this process for years, and all of a sudden you have a problem with it.”

“Because you never brought this to the board Jack!” Rizzo said.

“Why would I bring it to the board?” Wilson exclaimed. “It’s brought to the board at the appropriate time.”

“Right, when we push it through,” Rizzo said.

“Nothing is being pushed through!” Wilson said.

After discussing some of the particulars in Unislawski’s fee change proposal, Rizzo asked Wilson to provide the board with an opinion from Everhart explaining the Town Board’s authority to raise user fees and apply the “triple fee” penalty.

“So, are we going to get something from Leah saying he has the right to charge triple the fee? I don’t think we can in our town code, Jack,” Rizzo said.

Wilson said he doesn’t think the board needs “approval” from the town attorney to enact the user fee increases, but he said he would seek guidance on the issue, which was included in the Town Board’s minutes.

After the meeting, Deputy Supervisor Christina VanValkenburgh said it is her understanding that the town derives its authority to charge building permit user fees from Building Code of New York state, and therefore changes to the user fee schedule do not require a new town law.

VanValkenburgh also explained why she supported the change.

“Todd had gone through and compared our fees to all of the local towns and found that our fees had not been raised since 2011, that was the last time any of them had gone up, and he’s just trying to put us in line with the other townships,” she said.

According to the 2022 Fee Schedule, here are the changed fees from 2021:

• Working without a permit: will now equal a triple fee of whatever the permit fee would have been.

• New fees not previously charged by the town: For residential solar that includes a structural building the fee is now $50. For a deck with sunroom/roof the fee is set at $50 and for “concrete slabs” the fee is now $25.

• For residential solar: the permit will increase from $10 to $25.

• For Residential New Construction Housing permit and inspection fees: the permit for new construction will remain $200, but it will now be charged on projects equaling 1,500 square feet instead of the previous minimum of 2,000 square feet. The permit for modular homes will increase from $50 per bedroom to $75 per bedroom. The permit for new water wells will increase from $10 to $25, and for a new septic system will increase from $25 to $45.

• For Residential additions, alterations or renovations: the minimum permit fee will remain $100 but the additional charge per square foot above the minimum will increase from 10 cents per square foot to 15 cents per square foot.

• For Commercial additions, alterations or renovations: the minimum permit fee will increase from $100 to $150, and the charge per square foot above the minimum will rise from 25 cents per square foot to 45 cents per square foot.

• For Demolition: For residential owner-occupied properties the fee will now be $25, up from no charge, for one and two-family residential properties the charge will increase from $25 to $45.

• Commercial signage: the permit fee will double from $25 to $50.

• Residential Signage: With Zoning board of Appeal approval new residential signage will now include a $20 permit fee, up from no charge.

• Fences that abut lot lines: the permit charge will increase from $25 to $35.

• Decks: the permit feel will increase from $35 to $50.

• Swimming pools: the permit fee will increase from $25 to $45.

• Garages, carports: the permit fee will increase from $50 to $60.

• Sheds: the permit fee will remain $10, but sheds are now defined as not exceeding 144 square feet in size.

• For residential re-roofing: the permit fee will increase from $25 to $40.

• For commercial re-roofing: the permit fee will increase from $25 to $75.

• Siding and replacement windows: the permit fee will increase from $10 to $25.

• Heating Devices: the permit fee will increase from $25 to $40.

• Plumbing, gas piping and water heaters: the permit fee will increase from $10 to $25.

• Mobile home: the permit fee will stay the same for single-wide at $75, but increase to $95 for double-wide.

• Copies of any certificates, violations and orders: the fee will increase from $10 to $25.

• For a Subdivision Review: a “lot line amendment” fee will increase from $50 to $75. The “minor subdivision” fee will remain $100, but there will be an additional $50 for every subdivided lot associated with the subdivision. The “major subdivision” fee will increase from $100 to $150 with an additional $50 charge for each subdivided lot associated with the subdivision.

• For Site Plan Reviews: for “minor site plan” defined as a residential one to two-family property will increase from $50 to $100. The fee for “major site plans” defined as commercial properties will remain at $250. The special use permits for residential properties will increase from $50 to $60, and the commercial special use permits will increase from $100 to $250. Permits for commercial signs will increase from $50 to $100.

• For Zoning Board of Appeals actions: the residential project fee will increase from $35 to $70 and the commercial project fee will raise from $75 to $125.

By Jason Subik

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