COWntroversial Code Definitions

July 14, 2009

When you remodel, a number of Code requirements are determined by whether or not your building is treated as a “new building.” The Town Code does not currently have a definition of “new building.” The Town has long relied on a valuation model to determine if a homeowner’s renovation qualifies as a “new building.” The problem with that model has become apparent. With various triggers set at 50% or 75% of what the Town determines as your home’s assessed value, (historically they have used an antiquated chart meant for the Midwest which may be less than a quarter of the value of homes in California), so even a kitchen remodel can force you to add expensive repairs and upgrades. This can include, for example, retrofitting your entire house with sprinklers, which we COWs know is darn near impossible in some homes without tearing the whole place apart!! (Chapter 150 of Woodside’s Municipal Code requires the installation of expensive automatic sprinkler systems when renovations reach 75% of a home’s “value”.)

The recently adopted Fire Code, (Chapter 7A), with its increased standards for “new buildings” in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone, is the real driver behind the need for new “new building” definition. To complicate matters, there is more than one place in the Town Code and Fire District and County regulations where different methodologies determine what is a “new building.” The Woodside Fire Protection District has rules that trigger the new standards with just 50% of valuation. Moreover, County of San Mateo requires that a “new building” permitted by Woodside have its septic system upgraded to meet current requirements which can require the installation of a new leach field or additional tanks.

As mentioned in the last COWncil Roundup, Town officials have been working on writing the Town’s definition of a “New Building” for months. It has been on the COWncil three times so far, back on January 27th, May 26th, and again on June 23rd.

The Town staff and Town COWncil have been struggling to find the best way to implement a fix. The Town staff’s first attempt in January was many pages of legalese and micro-definitions, and was widely rejected by the COWncil as too complex and filled with too many potential pitfalls for owners. Since Mayor Peter Mason and COWncil member Dave Tanner are in the building business, the questions to staff were highly specific, and those two, especially, seemed unhappy with the first pass of the rules. Town staff was told to keep working on a definition.

The second attempt by staff was also rejected by the COWncil on May 26th, with some concern that they might now be too simple and not allow needed exceptions. The COWncil seemed especially worried that certain projects that they thought should be exempt, such as roof replacements and foundation work, might trigger the “new building” rules, thus encouraging COWs to either do work without permits or to put off needed repairs for fears of making a $20,000 project balloon to a $100,000+ project! A homeowner expressed his difficulty obtaining a permit to reroof his house, and COWncilman Romines pointed out that his own foundation replacement work a few years ago would have caused the imposition of the new building regulations.

Finally, on June 23rd, real progress was made with the third version of proposed rules. Now it includes an easy to read chart that shows when compliance would be required. There are exemptions for foundations and voluntary seismic upgrades, the proposal also included a chart listing the new building policies of some of our neighboring communities. The COWncil was pleased with this evolution of the rules but still wanted an exemption for roof replacement. Staff promised to incorporate that into a final draft.

The big remaining problem is with the County, whose position is that any major renovations should require the reconstruction of the property’s septic system. Staff is continuing discussions with the County on this problem. Meanwhile, the COWncil directed staff to just drop the section of the proposed ordinance that deals with septic system definitions to be revisited later, probably a wise decision since the County is actually planning on revising its own septic system codes in the next few months, anyway.

The proposed ordinance, with the adjustments suggested by the COWncil, should be coming up to a vote soon. If you have any COWncerns, you still have time to voice them. We appreciate the work that Paul Nagengast, the Town Engineer and Curt Clark, the Building Official have put into this issue. We also applaud the careful and serious consideration which the COWncil has given to this very important definition.

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