Published in the Bergen Record, Sunday, September 17, 2006
Zoning law blunders bring calls for reform
By SHAWN BOBURG
When you walk into your town's building department with plans for that home addition, you may assume the person who decides what's allowed under local laws has experience, training or a state license.
But you'd be wrong.
Zoning officers -- the people authorized to declare your detached garage too tall or your swimming pool too close to property lines -- are not required to have any minimum qualifications and face no state oversight, unlike other building officials.
Yet, their decisions carry high stakes. If they fail to spot a zoning code violation on your project and it's discovered later, you -- the property owner -- will probably pay to correct the mistake, legal experts say.
With New Jersey in a renovation and building boom, some say state oversight of zoning officers is needed to stamp out incompetence and protect property owners and taxpayers from the types of costly mistakes made by a former Ridgefield zoning officer and construction official.
State building officials announced last week they would investigate Robert K. Rogers after The Record reported that his string of mistakes over the last two years forced Ridgefield property owners to pay tens of thousands of dollars in repairs and buried the borough in lawsuits. But if Rogers' mistakes were only zoning law oversights, he will face no sanctions because the state has no authority over zoning officers, state officials said. Rogers was the zoning officer, electrical subcode official and construction official in Ridgefield. He has said he made mistakes only while acting as a zoning officer.
Some find the relative autonomy of zoning officials puzzling in a state whose oversight is among the nation's most stringent when it comes to construction officials and inspectors -- those who monitor and inspect construction sites.
"It is beyond me why [a zoning officer] -- somebody who is so important in a community and has so much authority over what people can do with their property -- is not required to have any kind of licensure or certification," said Jackie Zelinka, program development administrator at Rutgers University's Center for Government Services. "We're certification-happy in New Jersey, whereas in this position you could just hire the next person who walked through the door."
The state Department of Community Affairs, the agency that oversees construction, investigates hundreds of construction officials each year, with disciplinary action ranging from a written reprimand to license revocation. The agency investigated 181 building officials in 2005 and has stripped 41 licenses so far in 2006, said William Connolly, director of the agency's Division of Codes and Standards. Licensed officials must renew their certification with additional training every three years and submit monthly reports to the state, and are subject to random site visits from state monitors, Connolly said.
But zoning officers, who work beside them, are beholden only to the elected local officials who hire them. And no agency investigates or tracks complaints against them. After Ridgefield officials discovered Rogers had erred, he quietly resigned last December and moved on to municipal jobs elsewhere.
A statewide group of zoning and planning officials plans to lobby legislators to require that zoning officers be certified and face more state scrutiny.
"Certification would provide a level of assurance, with all the development going on in New Jersey," said Adele Lewis, of the New Jersey Association of Planning and Zoning Administrators, a non-profit organization.
Building in New Jersey was at a record high in 2005. Construction spending has more than doubled since 1996, to $16 billion statewide, according to state records. As construction has increased, building officials have maintained the common practice of holding multiple part-time positions in several towns. Rogers, for example, worked part-time in four towns besides Ridgefield.
Zoning officers need to be well-versed in land-use laws and how they relate to state rules, Lewis said, "because if they make a mistake, it can be very costly."
Rutgers University offers a four-course certification program for zoning officials that costs about $1,000, but few communities require the certification, officials said. If legislators were to pass a law requiring the training, the cost would likely be covered by an increase in permit fees the homeowner must pay, Lewis said.
Stuart Meck, a former zoning officer and director of Rutgers' Center for Government Services, said, "It's not unusual for mistakes to be made in zoning review. It happens all the time."
Meck called New Jersey's oversight of construction officials "one of the best in the nation." But zoning officers have escaped the spotlight, he said, even as their jobs have become increasingly important and more difficult.
"I see more of a justification now for licensing zoning officers because in New Jersey you have incredibly complex laws and there is a body of knowledge one must know in reviewing plans. ... This is not something you learn in high school."
Once a property owner builds, there is little protection if a building code or zoning violation is found later. Courts traditionally side with communities in lawsuits where homeowners fight violations that were overlooked by a municipal official, said Elliot W. Urdang, a Tenafly land-use attorney.
"Homeowners are definitely at a legal disadvantage," he said, because courts view compliance with local laws a matter of public interest.
Staff Writer Matthew Van Dusen contributed to this article. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Who they are
Construction officials grant construction permits after subcode officials issue permits for specific work, such as electrical and plumbing. They also ensure compliance with the state's construction codes and manage subcode officials. Hired by local governments, they are licensed and overseen by the state.
Subcode officials grant permits in particular work categories and ensure compliance with the state's construction codes. Hired by local governments, they are licensed and overseen by the state.
Zoning officers review plans for compliance with local land-use laws. Hired by local governments, they aren't licensed and don't have to meet minimum requirements.
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