By Dale Martin
August 14, 2020
An ongoing effort of the City’s Building Department has been to become more aware of unpermitted work being conducted in the City. Mr. Stephen Beckman, City Building Official, is the key leader in this effort.
Mr. Beckman was appointed as the City’s Building Official nearly one year ago. His appointment followed a string of interim or short-term Building Officials over the previous year. Mr. Beckman previously worked in south Florida, but was actually working internationally when he expressed interest in the Fernandina Beach position. He had apparently applied for a different position with the City several years ago, but did not accept the position at that time. In his short tenure with the city, he has had a significant impact on City staff and the community, in general.
A recent incident downtown highlighted the need for compliance with various building codes. A small (and contained) explosion drew police and fire personnel and equipment to the scene. The incident was quickly resolved with no injuries and minimal damage. What came to light in the investigation afterwards, however, was of greater concern. Several “improvements,” specifically electrical additions or changes, had been made to the site, many, if not most, of which were unpermitted and not compliant with the appropriate electrical codes.
The most significant threat of code noncompliance is to public safety. The effort to promote and require code compliance is paramount not only for safety, but also the economic vitality of our community, especially downtown, with its tighter clustered and historic buildings.
In one of my former communities, I saw firsthand the damage done to a community following the loss of several downtown buildings. A fire tore through one block of the city’s small historic area (a typical “one stop light” town), destroying the entire northeastern block of buildings. The fire happened in 2010, and it was only recently that rebuilding efforts began.
Imagine such an event occurring here (it actually already has, but long ago). What would be the impact of a fire that destroyed an entire block of downtown, especially if that fire was subsequently traced to unpermitted and noncompliant electrical (or other building) work? The personal impact on business and property owners, especially those who adhered to code requirements, would be devastating. The effects would resonate throughout downtown and the entire community.
Despite this worst-case scenario, skirting or outright ignoring the regulations, is usually done to save money (at the cost of public safety). Code compliance, or the failure thereof, is not restricted to commercial properties. Mr. Beckman and his staff of building inspectors can easily find many unpermitted improvement projects throughout the City’s residential neighborhoods: fences, building additions, building remodelings, electrical upgrades, and plumbing upgrades.
The Building Department staff has discovered buildings originally built as single-family homes illegally carved into several small apartments, the entire site rife with violations, putting the residents at great risk. On at least one occasion, the building and all of the modifications were so dangerous, the building was ordered to be evacuated immediately.
Mr. Beckman has discovered unlicensed contractors (a violation of state law) doing major revisions to structures and immediately placed a Stop Work order on the site. In some cases, owners or contractors will acquire a permit for one facet of a project and do work well-beyond the original permit. In other instances, plans approved for construction are not followed, and those errors or “short-cuts” jeopardize public health and safety.
I expect that Mr. Beckman’s efforts to ensure code compliance will result in the inevitable claims of the City being “business unfriendly” due to the costs associated with plan reviews, code compliance, and building inspections. If it prevents a serious injury or loss of life, so be it. I want our community to be “people safe.” City staff is exploring new measures to encourage property owners to bring their properties into compliance.
City staff, Building Department and Planning & Conservation Department, are available to discuss projects with interested parties. I strongly recommend that prospective buyers and builders reach out to city staff to learn more before making significant investments. Such a consultation with staff costs nothing but time, and may save significant costs in the future. The additional information is simply more to be added to the conversation beyond discussions with realtors, owners, contractors, and even neighbors. Take the time for appropriate due diligence.
The City’s Building Department will lose long-time inspector Ed “Flip” Filipkowski due to retirement at the end of this month. Filling inspector positions has become a challenge because of a lack of younger entrants to the field and the demand by nearly every community to fill depleting ranks as their “Flips” retire. Best wishes in your retirement, Flip.