August 25, 2016

Building Permits 101: Platting Requirements

A personal tale from Aaron Vorwerk, your neighborhood website editor...

As our nearby neighbors are aware, my wife Amanda and I embarked on a journey last summer to tackle additions and renovations to our home.  (Apologies to everyone for the mud pit that replaced our driveway for a few months!)  We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it has been a surprisingly challenging experience; we've learned a few hard lessons along the way.  And that's where this story begins...

The Replat

Back in 2006, the City of Fort Worth issued a memo (see below) making the decision to begin enforcing a 40-year-old provision requiring a plat (not a survey) to establish a legal lot of record prior to issuance of a building permit.  This provision grandfathers any lots established prior to January 1, 1948, so most of our Oakhurst neighbors are exempt.  Unfortunately, much of West Oakhurst was constructed after this date—ours was originally purchased in May 1948—so we are not so fortunate.
Memo from 9/8/2006 shared by the City of Fort Worth
What does this all mean?  For many residential owners in West Oakhurst (and throughout the city), a replat will be required prior to issuance of a building permit.  We were informed of this requirement by the City after submitting our application for a building permit in July 2015.  As detailed below, the process ended up delaying our project by roughly eight months (and costing us nearly $4,000).

Initially, I reasoned with the City that neither we nor any previous owners of our property have ever changed the property boundaries, and the West Oakhurst addition was platted in 1947, so there shouldn't be any logical need for a replat.  But in my (many) conversations with City planners, I learned that the fact that our property was originally sold in 1948 as a lot-and-a-half, like many West Oakhurst properties, meant that the 1947 plat of the neighborhood would not suffice.  I also learned that the City has enforced this provision on properties sold as little as two weeks after the 1/1/1948 deadline; they really offer no flexibility there.

My surveyor explained that he's debated this with the City for years, believing this to be a situation where the City is unfairly holding residential property owners to commercial standards, especially where property boundaries have never been changed.  We believe this causes undue hardship to homeowners wanting to improve their properties, especially for smaller projects (where the cost of a plat is out of line with the cost of the work to be performed).  This results in homeowners foregoing permits or choosing not to invest in their homes at all, when (ironically) it is in the City's best interest to encourage residents to invest in their homes, generating economic activity and boosting tax values.

As much as we love living in Oakhurst, Amanda and I will admit that we considered selling our home upon learning that we'd be delayed for an unknown duration due to the platting process, in addition to spending thousands of dollars that would otherwise have gone to renovations.

The Easement

If the replat itself weren't enough of a setback, it also resulted in us renegotiating an existing easement with the City.  Unfortunately, much of this had to do with the City's lack of resources and inflexibility on standards, as I'll explain later.

We and our neighbors have long had a 4' sewer easement on each side of our rear property line.  However, current standards call for 7.5' on each side.  Now this wouldn't have been that significant of an adjustment, but because the City wasn't sure of our sewer line location, they wanted to increase our rear yard easement from 4' to 15'!  My surveyor and I disagreed with the City for many reasons:  (1) given the 4' easement on the neighbor's side of the property line, the maximum we might anticipate the City requesting of us would be 11'; (2) the sewer line is a small branch serving only 2-3 homes, i.e. no need for a large easement; (3) this would threaten large oak trees in our backyard that predate the original installation of the sewer line; and (4) given that all surrounding neighbors have 4' easements, there would be limited benefit in dedicating a large swath of our backyard.

In response, the City asked our surveyor to locate the line, but he countered that this was the City's responsibility; he didn't have the access or permission from all adjacent neighbors to locate the City's line, and this shouldn't be performed at the homeowners' expense.

During this back-and-forth, I proposed a compromise:  We would accept an increase of 6' to our original easement, giving the City a total of 10' on our property (14' overall).  I felt that this was generous, but I also thought I'd be unlikely to build any new outbuildings along the rear fence, given present-day setback requirements and the fact that we already have an old shed back there that has encroached on the original easement for decades.

The City initially declined, agreeing instead to send out a crew to locate the line.  But weeks dragged by with no progress.  Eventually, in mid-December, a City engineer asked me if I'd still be willing to compromise.  He later admitted to our surveyor, "...the reason Aaron and I came to this agreement is due to issues with us having City Staff going out to locate the lines."

By the time this process was concluded, it was mid-January of this year.  We (finally) received our building permit in February, and we broke ground in March.

In Summary

From the very beginning, we have found our home improvement project fraught with challenges. It has taken a healthy dose of patience, some real heartache, and a spirit of compromise to get us this far.  But we believe that our neighborhood is a great place to invest, and some of you may be thinking about taking on a project of your own, so we thought it would be worth sharing this cautionary tale with you.  May yours go smoothly!

August 4, 2016

August Oak Leaflet Now Online!

Check out this month's issue of The Oak Leaflet online!  This month's newsletter recaps ONA's 4th of July celebration, highlights watering guidelines and permit requirements, and features July's Yard of the Month!
Visit our Newsletter Archive to view or download your copy.