Often I get questions about deed restrictions and the role of the building official. Deed restrictions (also known as restrictive covenants) may prohibit a number of things including the building of certain structures such as fences, swimming pools or sheds on the property of the homeowner. When such a restriction is disregarded, the building official should not get involved unless a code violation has occurred, for example, building without a permit. The proper party to bring an action is the homeowners’ association. This happened in Horn v. Huffman, a Kentucky case, where the homeowners built a ground pool in violation of the restrictions. Eventually the association brought a lawsuit to force the owners to remove the pool. The association won in court.
It is even possible that a building official might have to issue a building permit for something forbidden by the deed restriction if the application is proper. While the building official may want to bring the applicant’s attention the fact that such a restriction exists, the building permit cannot be withheld based on the deed restriction alone.
There was an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune about the difficulties homeowners and businesses encounter with local jurisdictions when they want to use green technology, such as installing solar panels. Many jurisdictions are not prepared to address those requests because their codes have not kept up with the technology or inspectors don’t have the experience to do inspections in this area. Owners complain about increased costs because of the care local jurisdictions are taking before these installations are approved (e.g. hiring an engineer). Eventually as this type of innovation becomes more mainstream, these problems should decrease. You can find the story at http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/ct-mre-0926-solar-energy-hurdles-20100924,0,6693743.story
One of the greatest sources of satisfaction in my work is helping inspectors achieve observable results, e.g. the roof that gets fixed, the yard that gets cleaned up, finding the right owner to charge. Consequently, when I have difficulty reaching a goal, I get very frustrated. I can think of few situations that are more difficult to deal with than when I am dealing with an occupant or owner who appears to be suffering from a mental illness. All of the normal carrot and stick approaches don’t work, i.e. fines, court orders, contempt of court. Unfortunately it’s difficult to tell which came first, the illness or the lack of maintenance. I recognize that many hoarders suffer from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and others are dealing with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Rational conversations are not often possible. Many of these individuals also lack family support, sometimes because their behavior has driven away the very people who could help them. While neighbors may be sympathetic (unless the person’s behavior has antagonized them as well), there comes a point where the neighbors just want the problem fixed. Many are willing to help the offender but usually the offender doesn’t want anyone to help them or doesn’t even recognize the problem. (Again, this may be due to the illness when paranoia is part of it). I’ve written in the past about my success with hoarders, bringing them into court and working closely on a schedule to bring the property into compliance. Most hoarders I’ve dealt with though haven’t lost touch with reality. It’s people who are somewhat delusional that are such a challenge. Sometimes the police can help if the person is a danger to his or herself or others but that’s the standard for involuntary commitment in my state and most mentally ill people don’t qualify. An alternative is a guardianship where a petition is filed with the court asking it to appoint someone to make the day to day decisions for the ill person because he or she is not competent to help his or herself. However, there has to be someone willing to file the lawsuit and take on the responsibility for the person’s care. I don’t think we can ignore problem properties by not issuing tickets for violations just because the offender is mentally ill. A sympathetic inspector who can gain the trust of the offender can get results by closely supervising the person’s progress. I’ve sometimes seen a person’s mental state improve as the residence looks better. If anyone out there has a magic solution, I’d love you to share it with my readers.