Detroit suburbs want home builders to clean up act

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — An uptick in home building has prompted some Metro Detroit communities to create or revise local codes to deal with problems between construction crews and neighborhood residents.

Royal Oak is a hotbed of construction activity, resulting in a proposed building ordinance after residents said builders left some neighborhoods a mess.

“When you hear of people finding debris, building materials, even Porta Potties delivered on their property next to a construction site, enough is enough,” said longtime Royal Oak resident and businesswoman Laura Harrison. “Rules are needed.”

Royal Oak’s City Commission is considering a plan that would require builders to install fencing prior to construction and erect signage before construction listing the permit holder’s contact information, among other things.

City Commissioner David Poulton said Royal Oak has issued 103 permits for new housing since January 2016, but the number does not include other construction, such as residential alterations or repairs.

Builders need to be advised of requirements, he said.

“They put up snow fences to the street, so people walking on the sidewalk have to walk out into traffic to go past,” Poulton said. “They have dug, and left, big holes that someone living next door could drive into with their car.

“This isn’t anti-development, but we want to have some rules in place so builders show some respect to people living in the neighborhoods where they are working,” he added.

Berkley City Manager Matthew Baumgarten said his Oakland County community has put extra effort in recent months toward enforcing building regulations.

“We have good ordinances, but some may need some more teeth,” said Baumgarten, whose city recorded 42 new building permits last year.

“Residents have complained of some builders blocking sidewalks. ... You tell children to stay out of the street, and suddenly that’s the only place to walk because the sidewalk is blocked.”

Lee Schwartz, executive vice president of government relations with the Home Builders Association of Michigan, said he hasn’t heard of any issues raised by either builders or communities.

“We have a plethora of rules to follow, from local ordinances to state and federal guidelines,” said Schwartz, whose 6,000-member group is the largest in Michigan. “And I don’t know of any good builder who would be bothered by any reasonable request from a city or township.”

Pend Corp. owner Jim Pendolino was cleaning up construction debris last week in front of a Royal Street address in Berkley. The area was fenced off during the project and kept clean, city officials said.

“Let’s face it, any time you do construction or dig a hole, there’s going to be some mess, but you do everything you can to minimize it,” said Pendolino, 56, who has been in construction work his entire life. “Most of us follow all the rules, but if you drive around in any city, you will see other builders that don’t seem to care.

“I’m all for community rules; it makes our jobs easier. Like putting up fencing around a construction site — that’s good for everyone.”

Royal Oak’s proposal

Homebuilders are especially coming under scrutiny in Royal Oak, where the seven-member City Commission may vote on the proposal, following a second reading expected in July. Penalties are still under discussion.

The proposal would require builders to:

■Install fencing prior to construction with a minimum 4 feet in height. It would have to be secured with a foundation and a top rail. Gates would be required to open inward to avoid blocking the right-of-way and be locked when there was no active construction.

■Erect signage before construction listing the permit holder’s name, telephone number and contact information for the city Building Division.

■Get a permit for any activity expected to affect a right-of-way or an adjoining sidewalk.

■Maintain rights of way by daily removing any mud, dirt or debris and enclosing any tree within the adjacent right-of-way with protective screening.

■Locate portable toilets on-site and no less than 15 feet from any structure on adjacent property.

Commissioner Pat Paruch says some builders are “bad actors” in her city, but she remains unconvinced any ordinance will reform them.

“We have all heard the builder horror stories or even seen them,” said Paruch, who questioned the proposal at a recent meeting. “But you have to be able to enforce ordinances, and right now I think we only have a couple inspectors.

“What good is it to tell builders they need to do all these things if no one is keeping an eye on them?”

But the problems are too serious to go unaddressed, said Harrison, who served on the City Commission for eight years.

“The city is built out, and any new development is going on in established neighborhoods,” she said.

Harrison said she had to chase builders from taking up spaces needed for customers in her business parking lot.

“Some of them are very nice, apologize and go about their business without argument, but others?” she said before ticking off concerns.

“Builders blasting loud music all day. Parking and blocking sidewalks so neighbors have to walk in the street. Collapsed snow fences that any kid can step over to a site left vacant for months. The list goes on and on,” she said. “To me, it’s disturbing the peace.”

Birmingham’s code

One city that has monitored construction crews for almost two decades is Birmingham, which in 1999 adopted a “Builders Code of Conduct” following neighborhood complaints.

It wants builders to make every reasonable effort to operate in “the least disruptive fashion possible as to equipment operation, noise of operations, employee behavior, cleanliness of site and safety of site.”

City records show an average of 100 to 110 building permits annually for new houses over the past few years, said Bruce Johnson of the city’s building department. In 2016, the number was 86 permits, with 46 so far this year, he said.

Birmingham wants builders to operate in “the least disruptive fashion possible” regarding noise, employee behavior, cleanliness and site safety.

Johnson said the high number of construction projects is leading to more complaints. Officials are discussing if penalties need to be increased.

To deter violations, Johnson’s department posts a “Code” sign at all sites requiring construction fencing.

“Violations discovered by our inspectors when going to a site for a scheduled inspection will result in canceled inspections until the violation is corrected,” he said.

Tickets carry a $500 fine and possible 90-day jail sentence, especially for repeated violations, Johnson said.

Builders are required to manage construction sites “to minimize safety risks to their neighbors and the public at large.” Walkways are to be kept open and usable, and care is to be exercised in grading and excavating to prevent damage to trees and shrubs on neighboring property.

Builders also must pay to repair damage to public improvements, including curbs, gutters, sidewalks, streets, trees, shrubs and public utilities. They must promptly clean any debris spilled on public property.

Berkley reviews ordinances

Berkley had 42 new building permits last year and officials are looking to modernize code enforcement, including consolidating efforts by building and planning departments to enforce site standards, the city manager said.

A few pieces of construction debris sit by the curb in front of 2946 Royal St. in Berkley. Three Oakland County communities, including, Birmingham, Royal Oak and Berkley, are establishing rules for builders to head off potential problems with residents and dangers at their construction sites.

“We came to the conclusion that the way we were doing things had to be more effective,” Baumgarten said. “We don’t want to tie things up in court. That just extends the problem.

“We are looking for compliance,” he said. “So we are passing out instructions not just to the general contractors but putting up signs advising all their subcontractors — the hired crews brought in to do the actual work — that we have ordinances and we expect them to be followed by everyone.”

Baumgarten said “a few citations” have been issued.

“You are always going to have some people who are going to try and do things their way but also many good builders who follow the rules and even go beyond them,” he said.

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