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The Old Tenant House

Michael Hillman

Read Part 3

Part 4: "You'll need to move your house back 45 feet..."

For most homeowner, probably one of the most important, yet most confusing and frustrating parts any renovation is obtaining the necessary permits. Fortunately, most contractors, like Reckley's Plumbing and Heating, are more then happy to relive the homeowner of that burden, and pull all the necessary permits and deal with the inspectors themselves.

Likewise, my architect filed the paper work for the necessary building permits. While I didn't expect to run into any problem, I nevertheless confined my renovation actives to pulling down old plaster until the permits were issued. Needless to say I was shocked to receive a letter at the end of the allotted review period that the plans for the renovation had been rejected by the county.

The reason for the rejection was the proposed addition to the kitchen did not meet the required 65 feet setback from the center of the road. Now at first blush, this might not sound like a big issue, but when you take into account the kitchen is at the rear of the house, the fairest part of the house from the road, suddenly my dilemma becomes clear.

Like many old homes built in the 1800s, my house was built right next to the road. Our front door is only 24 feet from the edge of the road. Given it's a quiet back road, being close to the road has never been a problem, until now that is!

Unfortunately, when the county updated their building codes a few years back, in which they required all new construction to be set back 65 feet from the center of the road, they failed to grandfather in exclusions for pre-existing homes that sat close to the road like mine.

When I enquired about an exemption, I was told that normally it would be considered, but a prerequisite for an exemption was that the house had to be in compliance with the current code! So in short, I was told that if I wanted to build and addition to the kitchen, I had to fist move the whole house 45 feet back to bring it into compliance with the existing code! Needless to say this idea didn't go over well with anyone involved.

Once again the resourceful Joe Wivell came to my rescue. With a tape measure in hand, we measured the distance from the center of the road to the addition, which was located on the North-West corner of the house. It was 56 feet. So if the addition was to work, I had to eliminate nine feet. The first five feet was easy. The part of the addition closest to the road was a five foot bathroom. Joe Wivell and Joe Reckley suggested moving it into the main part of the house. Now we just had to find four more feet.

Moving the addition back four feet was out of the question, as we were limited by the presence of a lovely old English Walnut tree that neither my wife or I were willing to see sacrificed. Every year it produced a bumper crop of the most mouth-watering walnuts one can imagine. As it was, we were going to have to cut one of its four main roots, moving the addition back four feet would have meant cutting it down completely. So another option had to be found.

'Ok Mike, here is what I want you to do." Said Joe. "Go down to the permit office and ask if you can put in a bay-window into a wall 65 feet from the road. If they say yes, then they are measuring the 65 feet to the road from the foundation of the house, not a part of the house. If they say you can, ask how much the bay window can 'project' out over the foundation. I think the maximum is four feet. If it is, asks the county if you can build your foundation at 65 feet and 'project' the addition the extra four feet in the direction of the road just like a bay window would."

With nothing to lose, I headed down to the permit office and followed Joe's directions. The questions stumped the front desk help, and I soon found myself in front of the chief of permitting. "Yep, you can project four feet over a foundation as long as foundation is 65 feet from the road so if you want to fax in the changes to me directly I'll approve the permits and you can start work tomorrow!"

Within am hour, my architect, Eric Jaranve of Fairfield, had modified the plans, and that evening, I got a call from the permitting office the plans had been approved and my permits were in the mail. "Go ahead and start," I was told, "and have fun. It looks like a beautiful addition." Less then 24 hours had passed since I had received the original rejection notice. Which only goes to prove what Joe Wivell kept telling me "If you're honest with the county and try to work with them they'll bend over backwards to work with you." He was right.

While I be the first to admit, I downed more then my fair share of Rolaids that day, in the end, the changes we made to the addition to meet the code requirements resulted in a much more appealing design for the addition. Instead on an unflattering twelve foot wall projecting 90 degree from the main part of the house, now we had two 45 degree walls that matched perfectly the two ending walls at far end of the addition.

In addition, the movement of the bathroom into the house allowed what was going to be a windowless wall to now be all windows, which has 'made' the plant room!

Knowing that the permits were in the mail, it was time to line up the material and contractors. For materials I turned to Mark Zurgable. Sure I could have saved a few bucks by going to a lumber yard, but having dealt with Mark on a recent run-in shed for my horses, I was impressed by his willingness to match prices, not to mention the quality of the wood he provided. He didn't let me down. Besides having the ability to call up Mark at 5:58, minutes before he closed, and ask him to leave out twelve 2x4s was worth its weight in gold! Over the next twelve months I would spend so much time at Zurgable Brothers, I felt my truck could steer its own way over there.

When it came to the plumbing in the house, and the new heating system, I turned to the Joe Reckley, whose father's old 4 digit phone number still graced the house's existing 50 year old boiler.

As I was not interested in having a propane tank outside my houses, I was stuck with going with a oil heating system again.

"OK Mike, do you want estimates for the plumbing and heating work?"

"Estimates?" I asked. 'Joe, you've been taking care of our heating and plumbing needs for 18 years now. If you were going to cheat me you would have done that a long time ago. No I don't need any estimates, you long ago proved yourself, just get what you need and do the work." Joe and I signed no paperwork, he didn't ask for any money in advance. All we did was shake hands, just as I suspect his father did with Mr. Bollinger when he put in the original boiler 50 years back. When you deal with craftsman from Emmitsburg, a hand shake is as good as any legal document, and in my mind, far more preferable.

For the kitchen cabinets we turned to Brian Reaver, and like Joe Reckley, we rejected his offer for an estimate. Having seen his work, my wife and I had long ago decided we wanted his craftsmanship in our kitchen. Every day when walk into the now finished kitchen we are reminded why we thought him best of the best, not to mention, he proved to cost only a fraction of what other custom cabinet manufactures cost.

All was looking good until my little brother, a home remodeler from Philadelphia who was going to do the framing in return for all the times I covered for him while growing up, called me late Saturday night and informed me that he was bring his crew down that next Friday to frame the addition I had six days to tear down the existing rear of the house, dig the new basement and build the addition's foundation the pressure was on!

Read Part 5 - The addition's foundation

Read other humor stories by Michael Hillman