Stanislaus County homeowners offered building permit amnesty

Remember when you made that garage into a family room, without a building permit? Or maybe you converted an attic to your teenager's bedroom, or closed in a patio for a game room, without the government watching.

You saved a few hundred bucks, but it's nagged at your conscience because you're otherwise a decent, hardworking taxpayer.

If it happened in an unincorporated area of Stanislaus County, a new amnesty program could help ease your conscience.

It still will cost you a few hundred bucks, but you'll escape double-fee penalties, saving a bundle. And you might sleep better at night.

Or maybe you bought a house with an unapproved addition or major remodel. It's not your fault, but the government doesn't care when they find out.

Until now.

Having seen successful building permit amnesty programs elsewhere, county building officials took the idea Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors. On a split vote, supervisors agreed to give it a try from July 1 through year's end, when they'll evaluate how it worked and consider canceling the program or extending a version to commercial and industrial buildings.

A few rules apply, however.

The stealth improvements must have been done before 2008. They must meet minimum safety codes. And you'll pay a $200 application fee, plus $105 for an inspection if you decide to pursue it.

Owners additionally would provide various plans and documents and pay permit fees under the current schedule, though work would be approved under codes in effect when the work was done.

"We just want folks to come talk to us and see if they can participate," said Kirk Ford, the county's planning and community development director. He said owners can inquire and even back out without fear of entrapment.

Ford's people typically stumble on scofflaw improvements when neighbors complain, he said, or when properties change hands.

Shane Parson said the home he bought several years ago had been converted from another building without a permit. The county started charging taxes for a residential dwelling in the mid-1990s, his research indicates. He questioned why he should pay today's much higher fees.

Supervisor Bill O'Brien said amnesty fits people such as Parson, but "if you knew you needed a permit and didn't get one, there should be a penalty." O'Brien cast the only "no" vote against four "yes" votes.

Supervisor Jeff Grover said people who skirted the law before are not likely to come forward without immunity. No one knows how many are out there, Grover said, but he estimated "a very large segment of our unincorporated area."

"I think we have a huge problem," Grover said. "Unless we do something extraordinary, we won't be able to resolve it."

The county's building permits phone number is 525-6557.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star