Cow-nfusing and costly building definitions

December 14, 2009

As you may be aware, we are following the progress Town in its efforts to define when changes to a structure should be considered to be a “New Building” here and here. If a building is remodeled or added to and is therefore deemed to be a “new building,” the existent portions will be required to meet some modern building and fire codes. Therefore, this issue is of COWncern to all of COWs – whether you will ever remodel your home or just want to be able to sell your house someday.

Because this is so vitally important, we are glad that the COWncil has taken its time and is being thoughtful about this definition. However, it is equally important that whatever the definition, it be easy for a lay person to understand in advance when a building which is remodeled or added to will be deemed to be a “New Building.”

The most recent discussion was brought to the COWncil by Town Engineer Paul Nagengast, who has been shepherding the process since the beginning. The COWncil members who make their living in the building industry, Mayor Mason and COWncil member Tanner, had met privately with Paul before the COWncil meeting for an in-depth review. We do not know if he has met with other professionals (architects, engineers, planners and contractors) who do a lot of work in this Town. This critical issue needs the widest vetting possible because of its obvious and subtle implications.

Paul presented the proposed new building definition in a matrix format that shows when construction would trigger compliance with Chapter 7A fire regulations, the Town’s own building regulations, or when it wouldn’t trigger either. The full “New Building Definition” will now be made up of the matrix, weighted formulas, and word definitions.

There are four major divisions of the matrix – “New Building,” “Reconstructed Building,” “Alterations (Changes and Additions),” and “Foundation Alteration and Seismic Upgrade,” with between two and five subdivisions each. The COWncil had some questions and suggestions for combining and moving around these subdivisions, so we don’t yet know what the final matrix will look like. The divisions are then matched up against “Automatic Fire Sprinkler Compliance,” “WFPD Fire Code Compliance” and two other code-compliance categories. So, for example, a new 2nd story addition, with a new foundation (3C in the matrix), would trigger compliance with all four categories of regulations if the addition was more than 50% of the buildings’ square footage.

The weighted formulas, which will be of interest to builders and homeowners, are available here (page 144), and the word definitions are available on the following page. These formulas were arrived at because of the COWncil’s interest in not penalizing people for replacing their roofs or foundations for fire and earthquake safety, or for doing what members of the COWncil considered mostly cosmetic work.

There was some complaints from the COWncil that the formulas were too difficult to understand, which lead to the amusing spectacle of COWncil members publically doing math and helping each other like a study group. Paul was directed to rewrite the equations in an easier-to-understand format for the actual ordinance. We second that motion. Not being professionals ourselves, we had difficulty fully understanding the matrix.

The major concern in the previous discussions of the definition was that designating a structure as a New Building could trigger San Mateo County’s requirement to upgrade to the current, restrictive septic system standards. This could require the replacement of currently working systems and construction costs in the thousands of dollars. Paul seemed confident that this newly crafted definition would be narrow enough to avoid that in most cases. It seemed likely that only a new structure on a previously un-built-upon lot would now fall under San Mateo’s requirement.

The COWncil seemed very pleased with the new version of the definition. They voted unanimously to direct Staff to draw up an ordinance for approval. Only when we have that draft ordinance will we see what final form the regulations will take. Again, we urge Paul to have a stakeholders meeting with the professionals who practice in this COWmunity before a final draft is presented to the COWncil.

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