While reading reporter Jonathan Dame’s excellent article on Newton’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) in the February 24, 2016 Newton TAB, I was struck by two points:
- 1) that applications for building permits of all types have soared by 40 percent in less than a decade, and
- 2) that ISD now generates more than $5 million annually in revenue for the city.
Although we all realize that the city is looking for revenue, I wonder if the first and best purpose of ISD is to generate permit fees? If so, then raising permit fees still further would bring in even more money. Or should the department’s main focus be to enforce our zoning ordinance and ensure compliance with building codes, as well as green space and environmental protection during construction?
As a resident of an area of the city (Newton Highlands south of Route 9) where there have been increasing demolitions of modest houses and replacement by much larger and far more expensive houses, I find it curious that the city makes it so inexpensive to demolish a house. I’ve heard it said that the “greenest” house is the one that is spared demolition, and indeed, as long ago as 2003, the American Institute of Architects reported EPA data showing that as much as 40% of the solid waste ending up in U.S. landfills was demolition and construction-related. If we care about the planet, should the materials and labor represented by an existing house be tossed in the trash so easily?
Owing to the way ISD calculates permit fees (for demolitions, $20 per $1,000 of the projected cost of demolition and disposal; for new construction, $20 per $1,000 of the estimated construction costs), it requires only $300 to $800 to obtain a permit to destroy a house, whereas permits for new-house construction commonly range between $7,000 and $13,000. This makes bulldozing a house something of a bargain.
There were 94 full-house demolition permits issued in Newton in 2013, 94 in 2014, and 104 in 2015. In the first 8 weeks of 2016, there have already been 16 such permits issued, putting us on pace to match last year’s figure. Because every demolished home is replaced by one costing from two to three times as much as the original, the change in the character—and affordability—of some neighborhoods is dramatic.
Might it not be a better idea to “nudge” developers toward preserving older homes by raising the demolition fees to a level based on the assessed value of the house? That would acknowledge the sunk cost of the energy and materials embodied in the house. Should the city consider setting lower fees for electrical and plumbing permits for renovations than for new houses, to incentivize renovation over demolition?
Couldn’t ISD set permit pricing to align with zoning enforcement and the preservation of older, more affordable houses, and still be a revenue center for City Hall? What do you think?