Dealing with small-town construction permits

We live in a small town on the North Shore of Boston, and want to expand our one-car driveway to two cars, from 10x30 feet to 20x30 feet. Although the state says that permits are not needed for driveways, the town does require them, apparently to ensure that 40% of the property remains as open space. (On the face of it, this expansion couldn’t possibly violate that rule: the property is about a third of an acre.) It’s not clear whether that’s the only issue, or whether the actual construction needs to be spec’ed and inspected.

However, in my e-mail correspondence with the official in charge of this, he has been rather testy and unhelpful, offering only minimal information about just what is needed, and saying my contractor should file for the permit. Well, I’m convinced that the contractor can do the job, but English isn’t his first language and he doesn’t have experience filing for permits, probably because most other places don’t require them for this sort of work.

So I want to take care of the permit application, but I obviously don’t want to annoy the inspector.

Do you have any experience in the permit process generally, dealing with fussy or uncooperative inspectors, and suggestions for how to handle them?

You need to talk with him either in person or over the phone to explain your situation. Email isn’t always a good way to communicate with someone you don’t know. There could be issues concerning the materials used, how to handle an existing sidewalk or the interface with the street. Explain to him that your contractor doesn’t speak English very well and he most likely will understand.

My city doesn’t allow you to blacktop a driveway, but you can build a brick one. But they will not let you replace an existing concrete sidewalk with a brick one. The interface with the road is technically city easement or property and they can have a say as to how it is done.

I always have to remind myself that not every town (or city) bureaucrat is a stereotype, that they are all individuals and often quite helpful. But they do have most of the power in this equation, so in my opinion it will serve you well to cater to him somewhat. Make an appointment to see him in person at his convenience. Have as much information at your fingertips as possible for the meeting – it appears that this person may not like dealing with the uneducated general public. Maybe bring your contractor along so they can meet, and the inspector can see the language issue for himself.

Also, and I urge great caution and circumspection with this approach, you might cultivate the acquaintance of an elected city official who might be able to step in on your behalf, but only if absolutely necessary. This can really backfire, so tread lightly. Don’t mention any such acquaintance to the inspector, especially on your first visit.

One secret weapon I may have is a family friend who has been here a long time and is well known in Town Hall. I have been thinking about calling her to ask about the Inspection Office in general and this guy in particular. She may have some insight into the process or the personalities. I’ll probably do that before I make any calls.

Thanks for the advice so far. More thoughts are welcome.

IME municipalities act however they wish, with no reliance on the clear language of applicable bldg codes and such. Very frustrating.

Our approach has been 2-fold.

  1. Approach the appropriate muni department, and try to get/give as much info as possible as to whether they will approve what we wish. In some instances, it may require tweaking your plans to accommodate what they will approve, at the sacrifice of exactly what you wish to do.
    Often you can talk with the inspector themself, and they will tell you, “If you do xyz, you’ll have no problem.”
  2. Ask the muni office for recommendations of contractors they deal with regularly and have no problems with and, if possible, go with one of them.

Can’t do that with the county government I work for. We can’t recommend anyone for fear of favoritism. And fear that if the project does not pass inspection, well… whole-nother can of worms. I’m sure it depends on who you know though.

I’m shocked that a small town building inspector is testy and unhelpful, and has asked to work with a contractor rather than a homeowner. Wait, did I say shocked, I meant this is how they are all the time.

TBH, you should approach this as having to deal with someone who doesn’t want you to get the project done, and will only approve it if they have no legal way to prevent it. Don’t be surprised if you need a $1,000 survey before they agree to look at the plan.

I am actually shocked that they are unhelpful. But different experiences and people I’m sure.

And yeah, a survey, or maybe just an ILC (Improvement Location Certificate) will probably be required to ensure that there are no encroachments into easements or setbacks. Different municipalities and counties have different rules.

I’ve got quite a bit of experience in the permit process locally – enough to tell you that (as you’ve already at least partially discovered) this varies drastically from municipality to municipality, at least in the United States. So most of my experience in exactly how it works here may be inapplicable.

(“Municipality” in this sense doesn’t need to be a city; it can be a city, town, village, county, whatever.)

What you’d be dealing with where I am would be that while the State indeed doesn’t require a building permit for driveways (at least as long as you’re not trying to build one in an environmentally-protected area, in some of which doing pretty near anything can require a state Department of Conservation permit as well as quite possibly local ones; or trying to build one that would exit/enter onto a state road, in which case you do need a state Department of Transportation permit), this particular municipality does. But exactly what’s required is going to be a matter of local code – you referenced percentage of lot coverage; but there might or might not also be steep slope regulations, and the lot coverage might depend on whether the driveway’s to be made of impermeable materials or not (most are, but there’s some new stuff available that’s permeable), and so on. And there are probably setback requirements, from intersections and from the neighbors.

Local regulations are probably in the zoning code, at least if your municipality has zoning; and/or in a Town law. You’re entitled to have access to zoning codes and/or town laws. Call the village/town/city hall/county office building/whatever and ask them what regulations they have covering driveways and how you can get a copy. (They can charge you for copying, but they can’t just say you can’t have one; and you should also have the choice of reading it there during official hours.) – wait a minute, what year am I in? That’s all true, but they probably also have a website, and all the regulations may be posted on the website.

In any case, get ahold of the local regulations by whatever technique, read the regulations, and then contact the inspector again. I second trying to do this over the phone or in person, and explaining about your contractor’s language difficulty. Call and ask the inspector when is a good time for you to have a conversation about it.

Most local code enforcement officers are pretty reasonable, and some are quite helpful. Some of them aren’t.

Yeah, it may be illegal for the government to either recommend or recommend against anybody.

Talk to your neighbors about contractors. And if you do already know somebody with good Town Hall connections, talking to them is indeed a good idea – but don’t start out by complaining too much about the inspector; just say you’re having a bit of a communications difficulty. For one thing the connection may be a friend of the inspector; for another, you want to come across as being reasonable yourself.

– Where I am, you might need a hand-drawn sketch with distances to boundaries and such filled in, but probably wouldn’t need a survey, at least unless a neighbor is saying ‘hey, that’s half on my land!’ But again, municipalities vary widely.

Come to think of it, I think maybe we’ve done something more along the lines of, “We’re thinking of having xyz do it. Have you ever had any problems with them?” In combination with getting bids from contractors whose signs we see up around town. And asking them if they have experience w/ our town.

This is a local issue, which is why the town would be involved. Does any state bother to involve itself with permitting residential driveways?

As I just said, New York involves itself if the driveway enters/exits onto a state road. [ETA: or if it would affect a state-protected environmentally sensitive area.]

That doesn’t seem to be one of the issues in this case; but I mention it because assuming that nobody ever needs a state permit for a residential driveway is a bad idea.

In Massachusetts, if a contractor files for a building permit, the homeowner has some protection if the work is not completed or fails inspection. If instead, the homeowner files for the permit, none of that protection is available.

So, if you are planning to use a licensed contractor, you are better off if they obtain the building permit.

I believe all Mass towns are on ecode360, so yes the OP will be able to get them online via the town site.

Lots of experience with small-town inspectors and regulations. They have an immense amount of power. Discrete ass-kissing is unfortunately necessary most times. That said, if you have your ducks in a row–i.e. you know for sure that your setbacks are good, site coverage is good, etc. you should be able to just submit the application. All requirements should be on the permit application and town website. In my experience (not in MA I admit) the contractor may submit the permit application, but it’s in the name of the owner. Having the permit specific to one contractor has obvious problems.

Have you found that some palm-greasing is also commonly necessary? I think small-time corruption in small-town muni governments is probably profoundly common. At little contribution to the mayor’s birthday-party fund could be helpful?

ETA: I was semi-adjacent to a similar situation in Honolulu some years ago. Being frustrated with a permit that seemed stuck in limbo, we were discussing making such a contribution, when one of our student interns casually remarked that her sister worked in that office.
¡Presto! Problem solved! We got our permit.

Here I think trying that might get you a visit from the police. And not with their hands out for more, either.

I very strongly advise against it.

I take exception to this.

My Wife and I have worked for small county government for 30 years each. Everything from animal control, building department, assessor and information systems. Working in county government, you also work with small towns. In 60 combined years of knowing and working with a LOT of people, we have met some weirdos, but never seen any corruption.

As @thorny_locust says, trying to grease some palms is strongly inadvisable. Your application will be moved to the bottom of the pile, and every possible nit picking hair of your project scrutinized very closely.

I’ll third this as being a no-no. I’ve been active in my city government for about 8 years now and even when we had a mayor that was SOMEWHAT close to a cartoon version of a mayor, this wouldn’t be appropriate or useful.

As someone else mentioned, people who work for your city government are just people. Sometimes they are really good at communication but sometimes they’re much better at the technical aspect of their job than the communication aspect. If you can’t get what you want from an email exchange, then perhaps it’s better to speak in person.

As for a list of contractors, the city won’t recommend anyone but they should have a list of all the contractors who are licensed and bonded in your city. I suspect if your contractor is not willing or able to talk directly to the building department then they are not licensed and bonded in your city and you might want to rethink using them.

All I can say is none of the above respondents seem to have done any business w/ Cicero, Illinois in the late 20th century! :smiley: