On more than a few occasions, a prospective client – usually a residential homeowner planning some kind of addition — will ask me some variation of this question: “I think I need zoning relief . . . what if I just build without letting the municipality know and without getting the permits or zoning relief?” My answer is always the same: don’t.
Simply building without getting necessary permitting or zoning relief (such as a variance, a special exception, or a conditional use) can be a tempting short-cut for property owners planning relatively modest improvements to their property. The prospect of spending the time, money, and effort going before at least one (and sometimes three) municipal bodies is understandably daunting and may lead you to wonder: why not just build?
To start, the fact that your municipal representatives voted to enact certain zoning requirements means you should not knowingly violate those requirements. However, there are also more practical reasons why you should not build without obtaining necessary permits or zoning relief:
- When you sell your house, the standard seller’s disclosure statement requires you to disclose if there are any violations of zoning ordinances or other local law or regulations relating to your property. A truthful answer in the affirmative could jeopardize the sale, and a false answer risks you being sued by the buyers if the unauthorized work is discovered after the sale.
- Many municipalities require homeowners who are selling their property to first allow the municipal codes officer to perform a use and occupancy inspection of the property. The inspection would more than likely reveal any work for which you would need zoning relief, leading to a notice of violation which you must resolve – all while you may already be under contract to sell the house.
- Most codes officers are already on the lookout for any signs of home construction or alterations, even looking for the vehicles of contractors in front of homes or in driveways. Expect to get a call or knock on the door from the codes officer asking about the nature and extent of the work, and whether you have the necessary permitting and zoning relief.
- Most reputable contractors will refuse to do work if the necessary permits have not been obtained.
- If you are caught – and you are likely to get caught – it can be difficult to then obtain the necessary zoning relief you avoided getting in the first place. The municipal staff and the zoning hearing board may be annoyed that you attempted to dodge the correct procedure, so simply begging forgiveness may not work. Similarly, municipalities may not believe claims that you were simply unaware of the zoning requirements.
You may not like the process of obtaining necessary permits and zoning relief, but it is always preferable to the consequences of not obtaining it and then getting caught. Don’t take the risk: get the necessary permits and zoning relief.
If you have questions about your rights concerning your property lines or other land use or zoning issues, you may contact Matthew McKeon at [email protected], or by telephone at 610-840-0225. This article provides a general overview of the law. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation.