A 2015 decision by the NH Supreme Court serves as a strong reminder to homeowners and their contractors to obtain building permits for home renovations when asked or reminded to do so by Town officials. In the case of Town of Bartlett v. Furlong, 168 NH 171, the property owner was notified in writing several times by the Town that the property renovations he was undertaking required the issuance of a Building Permit. Despite several written warnings, including a “Cease and Desist” notice advising Mr. Furlong that he was in violation of the Town of Bartlett’s Zoning Ordinance and to stop all work on the project until he applied for and was issued a Building Permit, and a two rejections of his Building Permit application for failure to submit the proper documentation, he completed the renovation work without having received a Building Permit. Shortly thereafter, the Town filed a land use complaint against Mr. Furlong in court advising that under New Hampshire law (NH RSA 676:17, I) he could be fined $275 for the first day of the zoning violation, and $550 per day for each day thereafter, if he did not correct the situation by complying with the zoning ordinance by applying for the Building Permit (even after the fact).
Building Permits are always required for new construction, or for the construction of an addition to a home or a non-residential building. The question of whether or not a Building Permit is required for renovation work depends upon the scope of the project, and whether the project involves changes to or the expansion of the existing electrical, HVAC, and/or plumbing systems serving the property. Since the underlying reason for Building Permits is to involve the Town Building Inspector in the review of the plans for the work initially, and then during the course of the work, to inspect the quality and completeness of the work for compliance with current safety and building codes, it is almost always a good idea to consult with the Building Inspector (or ask your contractor to do so) before commencing the work. Not only does the review subject the plans to a second set of eyes, the inspection or series of inspections provides the type of oversight which most homeowners are not qualified to give. In addition, many prospective home buyers will ask whether or not advertised renovations were conducted pursuant to a Building Permit in order to be assured that any recent work was lawfully conducted and completed in a code-compliant manner. Most importantly, if the scope of the work is such that a Building Permit is or was required, and Town efforts to bring the project into compliance are ignored or flouted, the monetary penalty can amount to many multiples over the cost of the project itself. In the Furlong case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld a penalty of $344,025.00 awarded to the Town of Bartlett by the lower court based upon two years’ worth of a continuing violation of the ordinance by Mr. Furlong from the date the suit by the Town was first filed against him. The award (even after the Court applied a credit to Mr. Furlong for the number of days during the pendency of his appeal) was quite a high price to pay for failing to obtain a Building Permit at the outset.
Beth H. Davis is a director at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. Her present practice focuses on real estate and business transactions. You can reach Attorney Davis by e-mail at [email protected].