What to expect when applying for a Building Permit.
What to expect from the Building Department.
What to expect from the Zoning Board.
CONTAINED HEREIN IS EXPLANATORY INFORMATION REGARDING:
Many NJ towns have received many questions from their residents about this topic. This is presented to aid homeowners who are planning construction on their properties.
Generally, resident's questions seem to focus on the Building Permit process. The herein described processes illustrate what a typical NJ resident applying for an addition to their home would typically have to do. Other types of applications, such as commercial applications, follow a slightly different and much more strict process which is not addressed here.
Plain language is used as much as possible. This information is complete and accurate as possible, but keep in mind that every town is slightly different and every application is different. It would be impossible to anticipate every aspect of every application, in every NJ town, therefore this does not cover every situation that could develop.
Overview of the NJ Laws that apply to building construction are as follows-----
STATE LAND USE LAW
The NJ State Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL) sets forth the process and criteria that must be followed by law at the local town level. The MLUL allows the creation of the local Planning and Zoning Boards. It exactly defines how board members are selected and the procedures the boards must follow. It exactly defines the basis of the reasons a board must have to either approve or deny an application. The Boards are required by law to clearly state the reasons for an approval or denial of an application. The application process is virtually the same in every municipality in New Jersey. Local elected officials cannot modify the process or the criteria. This mostly is to assure "equal protection under the law" when someone applies for permission to build something.
STATE BUILDING CODE
The NJ State Uniform Construction Code (NJUCC) is the "State building code". This State law sets forth the process and criteria that governs the local building department's operation. It exactly defines how all buildings, including single family houses, in NJ are to be constructed. Local elected officials cannot modify the process or the criteria establishing the building departments operation or the building codes themselves. This is to assure that only qualified state licensed and state trained inspectors are enforcing a building code that is the same (or uniform) in every town throughout the State. The building codes and inspectors protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public who use the buildings. Properly qualified state licensed and state trained inspectors are hired locally, by the mayor and councilpeople, for a State mandated, 4 year minimum term.
The NJUCC defines the various jobs and duties of the local building inspectors in your town. These responsibilities are divided into four sub-categories and one administrative category as follows: Building Subcode official, Fire Subcode Official, Electric Subcode Official, Plumbing Subcode Official, and the Construction Official. The Construction Official is in charge of , and responsible for, the administration and record keeping of the building department. No building permit can be issued without the signature of the Construction Official. He or she is accountable to the State for the proper administration, review of plans by the subcode officials, and overseeing the enforcement activities of the department. These activities are reported to the state directly, by computer, usually on a monthly basis. The state uses this information to track economic activity around the State to make economic evaluations and predictions for the NJ economy.
LOCAL LAW Your Townís Land Use Ordinance---
The local elected officials,( Mayor and Councilpeople) adopt a local Land Use or Zoning Ordinance. This law has different requirements that vary from town to town. This local law is structured as exactly spelled out in the State Law MLUL. The Land Use Ordinance establishes the position of Zoning Officer / Land Use Officer / Zoning inspector-- This person is hired by the mayor and councilpeople, to be responsible for the initial review of an application to build something and to inspect and make certain of zoning compliance by applicants. The initial review is to determine whether the proposed addition conforms to the zoning ordinances or not. The local zoning law spells out, in detail, all of the specific local restrictions on houses as well as other buildings. It exactly defines how big the lots have to be, how big a house can be, how close it can be to the street and property lines, how tall it can be, how much land a home can cover, how much driveway, patio or other gravel surface it can have, how many garaged car spaces are required, where and how high fences can be, etc. These are real and exact limits on homes and apply equally to new homes and new additions. Any new construction, including home additions, must comply with all of the zoning requirements OR make application to obtain a variance from the Zoning Board.
Overview of the process of applying for and obtaining a building permit to build an addition.
The resident or resident's architect will first plan out their addition. This involves drawings, plans, elevation views, lot survey of the entire property and the entire home. Addition plans, including decks, pools and patios, should show the entire existing house, new addition, existing or new patios, garages, sheds, driveways. All rooms and spaces must be labeled. Plans must very clear and have exact dimensions so the officials can properly review for compliance with the laws.
Incomplete plans, sloppy or unreadable plans, or information left off the plans can cause enormous delays in obtaining a permit. It can also lead to expensive problems and delays during the construction since the builders will not know exactly how to build the addition. If the builder does not follow the plans exactly, any permits obtained may be null and void. Changes made to the plans during construction must be reviewed by the building department before they are built.
It is recommended that residents hire a qualified licensed architect to prepare the drawings and plans. The architect's job is to make sure the plans are clear, accurate and complete. If a variance is needed for the addition, an architect's drawings are usually required by the zoning variance application.
When the drawings are completed, multiple copies (usually 3 copies of everything) are submitted with the applications packet. The applications are normally filled out by the resident, contractor or architect and multiple copies are submitted with the plans for review.
A breakdown of the various separate departments involved in permit review is as follows:
When an applicant applies for a building permit, they are actually applying for two or more permits. Required permits include, zoning Permit (local law), building permit(state law), and possibly soil movement permit (local Law). Soil movement permit depends on how much soil is to be moved.
LOCAL ZONING REVIEW---
Zoning Officer, Land Use Officer, Zoning inspector-- This person is responsible for the initial review of an application packet to determine whether or not it conforms to the local Zoning Ordinance.
If the application and plans are complete and the proposed work conforms to ALL of the zoning requirements, the application will be approved by the zoning officer and the application and plans may be submitted to the Borough Engineer to verify the volume of disturbed soil. This is needed to prevent storm water from larger building additions running off into and damaging the neighbors properties all around the proposed addition.
If the application and plans are complete and the proposed work does NOT conform to all of the zoning requirements, the application will be denied by the zoning officer. The applicant receives a "letter of denial" with information about the additional applications needed for applying to the Zoning Board to obtain a variance or variances.
If the application does NOT need a soil movement permit, then the approved application is referred to the building department for review and compliance with the state building codes.
LOCAL BUILDING DEPARTMENT REVIEW--
After passing zoning review, the building department reviews the proposed construction.
If the NJUCC applications and plans are complete, the plans and applications go through "plan review". Each subcode official separately reviews the plans for State building code compliance. The plumbing design is reviewed, then the electrical design, then the fire safety design is reviewed, and finally the building and structural design. If during any of the reviews, an official needs more information, the plans are rejected with a request to clarify or fix the missing or wrong information. Each of the 4 subcode officials must sign off on their portion before the permit applications and plans go to the construction official for his final review and signature. The building permit can then be issued.
If the plans and applications are truly complete, clear, and professionally prepared, this process can be completed in about 3 weeks. However , the building department has by law up to 20 days (4 weeks) to complete the plan review process.
If the plans are not complete, not clear, and not professionally prepared, the plan review process can take much longer and be very confusing. The building codes are very complex and sometimes when plans are changed to fix one problem, it can inadvertently create another problem which causes the plans to be rejected again. The second problem was created by the correcting of the first problem in the wrong manner. This is why it is so important to get knowledgeable professional assistance in preparing plans. This is further compounded by recent changes to the NJ State building codes that now require much more structural detail on the plans then was previously required.
LOCAL ZONING BOARD REVIEW--
If a variance from the zoning is required, a denial letter will be written by the Zoning Officer to the applicant.
Additional applications will now be needed to apply for the zoning variance. The requirements of these additional applications include:
Obtaining a certified list of property owners within 200 feet of the property requesting the variance. This list is available from the clerk's office for a small fee. The list is needed to comply with the State law requiring proper notice be given to the surrounding property owners that a variance is being requested by someone near to them.
Notarized applications completed and properly filled out.
Publishing of a legal notice announcing the location, nature and extent of the variance requested, and the date, time, and place of the zoning board hearing.
Proof of the publication of the notice in the form of a notarized statement from the newspaper with a copy of the notice attached.
A copy of the notice that was mailed, certified mail, to all the property owners with 200 feet based on the list obtained from the clerk's office.
Proof of the certified notice mailings in the form of the postmarked receipts from the post office.
Payment of all application fees, these fees are set by the mayor and council and listed in the Zoning Ordinance.
Payment of all escrow fees, these fees are set by the mayor and council and listed in the Zoning Ordinance. The escrow fees are to pay for the cost of the zoning board attorney, zoning board engineer and zoning board professional planner to review the applications and plans and to advise the zoning board on the details and impact of the variance requested on surrounding properties and neighborhoods.
Clear and professional plans are needed for the proposed addition. This involves drawings, plans, elevation views, site plan, and lot survey of the entire property and the entire home. Layout plans, including decks, pools and patios, should show the entire existing house, basement floor, first floor, second floor, and attic floor, new addition, existing or new patios, garages, sheds, driveways. All rooms and spaces must be labeled. Plans must very clear and have exact dimensions so the zoning board engineer and planner can properly review and assess the impact on surrounding properties and neighborhoods. In most cases, plans do not have to have the all the construction details that the building department would require. The plans need only clearly depict the exact overall design of the entire home and property. The plans should be prepared, signed and sealed by a NJ licensed architect. Many people get only the layout and elevation drawings done for the zoning board application, and wait to get approval before having the construction details drawn up.
After the zoning board is informed by the board secretary that all of the above items have been received and are properly completed, the board professional planner will declare the application complete so the zoning board hearing can proceed.
The above procedure is exactly spelled out in the NJ State Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL) and all the requirements must be received prior to proceeding with the hearing.
If any of the above requirements are missing, the application will be declared incomplete and the hearing will be delayed until the missing information is received by the zoning board.
Attending the Zoning Board Hearing----
The completed application is then listed on the agenda for the zoning board. The other completed applications are also listed to be heard in the order they are received or as listed at the discretion of the chairman.
The 7 Board members and 2 alternate members are appointed and confirmed by the municipal council. Board members are appointed to 4 year terms (2 year terms for alternates) and there is NO compensation in any form for being a board member. The board attorney, engineer, planner, and secretary are contracted by the board itself at the first meeting of the year. The chairman of the zoning board can be any full member of the board and is elected by the other board members at the first meeting of the year.
The chairman runs the meeting and is responsible for conducting the hearing in accordance with the strict requirements of the state law. If the meeting is not run in accordance with the (MLUL) State law, the town will be vulnerable to lawsuits. I can not overemphasize how very important it is to conduct a proper hearing.
The Zoning Board Hearing begins with the Open Public Meeting Statement and the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Zoning Board Hearings are recorded on a digital recorder as required by the State Law.
The chairman will then call for approval of meeting minutes, vouchers, resolutions, and review of the correspondence received by the board since the last meeting. After that is completed, the individual applications are announced and discussed.
When the application is announced by the chairman, the applicants come forward to the microphone and are sworn under oath to tell the truth at the hearing. The applicants then explain to the board why they are requesting the variance. Attending a zoning board hearing is like going to court where the board members are the judges. It is advisable for the applicants to be represented by an attorney, however it is not required by the State Law. If the applicants are represented by an attorney, the attorney may call witnesses such as the applicant's architect, or planner to professionally explain the application and it's design.
The request for a variance is taken as a serious matter. The applicant is asking that the zoning requirements that apply equally to everyone in town, not be applied in their case. They are asking for a specific exception to the laws that the mayor and council created to protect the people and property. The applicant must have some substantial legal reason as to why their request should be granted. Acceptable reasons are defined in the State law.
Reasons should be related to the land or the structures on the land. If the applicant has an unusually shaped lot, or a steeply sloped lot, there may be grounds for the granting of a hardship variance. The hardship is caused by the land shape or the location of the existing structures on the land. Personal hardships are not considered reasons to grant variances. Personal hardships, such as financial difficulties or having a large family in a small house, will not qualify as legal reasons to grant a hardship variance.
If the improvement to the home adds more beauty to the neighborhood, there may be grounds for granting the variance based on the increased beauty having a positive impact on the overall neighborhood.
Examples of reasons that are generally not considered acceptable legal reasons are as follows: "Iím a taxpayer and I need this" or, "Iíve lived in town a long time and I feel Iím entitled to this variance" or, "my family needs more space" or, "I always dreamed of having a nice family room" or, "the realtor told me I would make more money on resale if I added a bedroom". These represent the ownerís personal reasons why he or she wants a variance, and while they may be true, these reasons have nothing to do with the impact on the neighborhood or the existing location of structures, and are not generally acceptable reasons to grant a zoning variance.
Photos of the home and the surrounding neighborhood are submitted to the board so the impact of the variance can be better evaluated by the board members.
After the applicant is finished explaining the application, the 7 board members, 2 alternate board members and the 3 board professionals ask questions of the applicant to obtain additional information to help in deciding on the application.
Sometimes the applicants testimony raises questions about the variance which requires additional clarifications to the plans. At that point the Chairman may extend the testimony to the next hearing so the applicant can get the drawings revised.
After the Board's questions, the meeting is opened up any other person in attendance to ask questions or tell the board if they like or don't like the granting of the variance application. Neighbors are given this opportunity to give the board their opinion of the variance request. Some neighbors may support the granting of the variance, some may object to it. The applicants neighbors have a legal right to give their opinion on a variance request, since they are most affected by the construction.
One of the main purposes of the zoning board hearing is to provide a forum for the neighbors to express their opinions.
After the Board has heard from the applicant and any interested neighbors. The board attorney will advise the board of the legal merits of the requested variance. If the applicant has a strange shaped lot, or a steeply sloped lot, there may be grounds for granting the variance. If the improvement to the home adds beauty to the neighborhood, there may be grounds for granting the variance. The board must find that the granting of the variance is really needed. The applicant may be able redesign the addition to comply with the zoning requirements. Many times the applicant is asked to reduce the size or change the shape of the addition to minimize the variance request and the negative impact on the neighbors. The zoning board members will discuss their opinions of the variance request and whether or not it should be granted. Board members don't always agree and this generates discussion of the merits of the request.
Overbuilding can be a big problem and Zoning Boards are very concerned about people building additions on their homes that are too large and are not beneficial to the neighborhood because they are too big and too close to property lines.
After the Board discusses the merits, the chairman will motion for action on the application. If board members agree that the applicant has a beneficial application, a motion will be made to approve the application. If not, the motion may be for denial of the application.
After the motion is made and supported by a second board member, the chairman calls for a vote on the application. Only the 7 board members vote on an application. The Board Engineer, Professional Planner, and Board Attorney do not vote on zoning variance applications. The alternate board members vote only if a regular board member has been absent for one of the hearings.
Whether the application is approved or denied, the zoning board attorney prepares a legal resolution formalizing the board's official decision. The resolution is usually reviewed and approved at the zoning board hearing the following month. The testimony, application, drawings, witnesses, objectors, and any other relevant details of the hearing are written into the formal decision of the board.
After the resolution is officially adopted by the board approving an application, the applicant can then submit their detailed construction drawings back to the zoning officer, who verifies the resolution, and then the Building Department for plan review as described above.
JUST TO RECAP
This resident's addition with variance granted, required the following applications: initial zoning review applications, zoning board applications, and building department applications.
The building permits can then issued and construction can start.
This is a summarized description of the zoning permit, building permit process. Every application is different and there may be additional steps not specifically outlined here.
SOME COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS
There seems to be a widespread belief that the building inspectors are there to help people get their permits by helping them with drawing out the design requirements and filling out the forms for them. This is not true. The building inspectors are enforcement officials, they do not fill out permit forms for individual applicants.
There also seems to be a widespread belief that once a building permit is issued, applicants can change whatever they want to change without further zoning or building code review. This is also untrue. Any change will be reviewed again for compliance.
There is also a general reluctance on the part of people to fully disclose exactly what they are doing to their homes. This causes problems when people downplay the extent of their project, and when it is inspected, it fails due to improper permits when the project turns out to be much more involved than was disclosed on the permit applications. This also happens when people do not follow their approved plans.
This should give NJ residents a better overall understanding of this process.
Information compiled by:
William J. Martin, R.A., AIA, P.P.
Registered Architect, Professional Planner, NJ Licensed Building Inspector