Ah, spring – when a homeowner’s fancy lightly turns to adding that new room, covering that patio or building that fence. (Apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson.) But before diving into your long-anticipated project, save yourself potential headaches by first checking with the City of McKinney. Your dream just might require a permit – or at least some expert building-code guidance.
Chief Building Official Rick Herzberger, and his team of 25 employees, invite all to stop by their offices at 221 N. Tennessee St. for a chat – or call or email – when contemplating a property project. The City’s website, mckinneytexas.org, also has valuable information on the permitting process and pertinent ordinances.
Herzberger says a top goal of his department, as noted in its Mission Statement, is to offer “exceptional customer service.” “We strive for that all the time,” he says. The Building Inspection Department, he adds, prides itself in being at the forefront of adopting the latest building codes – local, federal and international.
On the job for 10 months, Herzberger has held the same position in three other cities over the last 23 years. “This city to me is probably the most attractive city for any Building Official to work in,” he says, “just because of the staff and the operation that has been established.”
Jeff Harris, McKinney’s Senior Plans Examiner, oversees a staff of three plans examiners and four certified permit technicians. Over his 22-year tenure in McKinney, Harris says he’s seen lots of homeowners who suddenly decide to tackle a project over a long weekend.
“And a lot of people make the mistake of thinking, ‘I’ve got it covered with the HOA,’” he says. “But if it’s structural, electrical, plumbing or mechanical, chances are pretty good you’re going to need a permit. ... We want to make sure it’s designed so that it’s not going to damage people or property.”
Harris says while local professional builders are fairly versed on the rules, homeowners sometimes need guidance. “I’d much rather talk about it up-front than for them to start building it and have someone stop them. ... Bring us a design, let us look at it. Maybe you’ve got a set-back issue or you’re too close to your property line.”
“We have to remember,” Harris says, “[homeowners] have an idea, they’ve got this dream. We want to make this their home. That’s the challenge: to try to understand what they want and make it fit within the confines of the building code.”
Harris says the most frequent requests from homeowners involve fences. “I would say 99.9 percent of houses in McKinney have a fence,” he says. “And that fence has to be maintained.” Every spring, he notes, hundreds are blown down.
(No permit is required for fence maintenance, as long as its location and height don’t change. Otherwise, check the rules.)
Garry Adams, the City’s Assistant Building Official for the past eight years, supervises McKinney’s 11 inspectors and two chief inspectors. He says drainage issues are frequent to this area. “We’ve got a unique city, with rolling hills and things, and we have a drainage plan that was put in long before houses were built on it.” Homeowners who add landscaping or a shed to their property sometimes block that drainage, he says, pushing it onto a neighbor’s yard.
Assistant Building Official Garry Adams, Senior Plans Examiner Jeff Harris and Chief Building Official Rick Herzberger
Surveys are “very important,” Adams adds, when building any kind of structure. He also has this advice for homeowners: “Be leery of the contractor that says, ‘I don’t want to get the City involved. You don’t need a permit.’”
So what happens when someone does build something without the required permit? “They have to hire an engineer to come in and evaluate what they did,” Adams says. “A lot of times it’s an X-ray, if they poured a slab for the foundation. They X-ray it to see if it’s got steel in it, and for the depth of beams.” There are also tests for concrete strength and other components of construction, he says. “[The homeowner] has to pay for all that.”
Herzberger notes the City is not out to punish, though. “You just don’t go out there and give them a citation: ‘Hey, you did this wrong. That’s a penalty.’ They already got a penalty. We try to work around that.”
“I think the main thing is just communicate with the City,” Adams says. “If you don’t need a permit, we don’t mind telling you.”
Each spring, Herzberger says, North Texas weather brings a rash of calls for storm shelter, roofing and fence permits. Solar/wind-turbine conversions are popular all the time, along with swimming pools. “We’re set up for all that,” he says.
A $100 plan review fee is required for residential building permits, including anytime square footage is added to one’s home. Commercial plans entail a $200 fee. (Harris explains the City Council-approved fee became necessary when too many people were dropping off plans and not picking them up.)
So here’s the typical permitting process, as outlined on mckinneytexas.org:
- builder/homeowner submits permit application to a permit technician and pays the plan review fee.
- a plans examiner verifies zoning and code compliance over 3 to 5 business days.
- permit is issued to builder/homeowner, permit fees are assessed and paid.
- construction may begin.
Certified Permit Technicians Lorie Strickland, Kathy Marcussen and Cheryl Clark assist homeowners and contractors through the permitting process.
(Permit fees are set by City Ordinance and based on project valuation. See mckinneytexas.org.)
Detailed information “packets” for homeowners and builders are also available on the site.
What about the homeowner who asks, “What business is it of the City where I build my shed?” Herzberger’s answer: elected officials have adopted codes and “it’s our responsibility to the people to enforce those codes.” He adds, though, telling people “because it says so” is not his department’s style. Herzberger prefers explaining the reason behind a specific code, and he says most people are receptive to that.
Citizens also have avenues of recourse, he adds, like requesting a variance from the City Council-appointed Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Herzberger says homeowners should check with the City or the Business Bureau if encountering a questionable bid from a contractor. “We can give that homeowner a number to call,” he says. “There are a lot of things we can do – a lot we can’t – but always contact us.”
McKinney Assistant Building Officer Garry Adams checks new patio measurements.
Of course, humor is found everywhere and building inspection is no exception. We close with Adams’ true story of a woman who added a room onto her home without bothering with permits or codes. When told by inspectors her new room’s ceiling was way too low, she replied, “I’m only going to rent this to short people.”
(No, that didn’t fly.)
About the author: Rick Atkinson is a McKinney-based freelance writer and cartoonist. He and his father-in-law once added a flip-up door to skirting on a lake-retreat mobile home. Upon task completion, the door-blocking stump was observed. (Permits provide only limited protection for “stupid.”)