Housing decline hasn’t slowed countywide development projects

Mark Mussman (left), executive director of Huntington Countywide Department of Community Development, looks through some recent permit applications with Miranda Snelling, office coordinator. Photo by Andre B. Laird.

Originally published March 7, 2013.

Despite a slow economy and declining home purchases, Huntington County is still one of the few counties in the nation that has seen a steady stream of community development projects.

That's the view from Mark Mussman, executive director of Huntington Countywide Department of Community Development, the department that handles building permits.

"Because Huntington County has never really relied on new residential developments, we haven't seen too much fluctuation in the number of permits people file for each year," Mussman says. "Permits for new builds have gone down, but that can be expected, due to the housing bubble."

While there has been no major subdivision projects locally, the up side of that decline in requests for permits to build new homes is an increase in farmland value, he adds.

"It is more feasible to continue using that land for agricultural purposes than to sell it to a developer," Mussman states. "That has resulted in a slight increase in farmland around the county."

Mussman adds that residents still have the choice of buying older homes that have been well-maintained or existing newer homes.

"If someone wants to build a new house and they can afford it, it will happen regardless of the economy," he adds.

A lot of the permit requests that his department handles are small DIY (do-it-yourself) projects, Mussman says.

"You also don't need a permit to just fix up your home, so we are unable to track those numbers," he states. "But for the most part, a lot of the permits are for smaller projects."

During the winter months, he adds, many small projects include adding decks, porches and putting roofs over existing ones.

"Weather conditions can delay outside projects such as concrete work and it can also be a little more expensive during the winter," Mussman notes.

He adds that while there are sometimes problems with people not waiting to get their permits before building or staying current on their inspections, it is not a huge problem.

"Most of our permit problems are with people who install sheds or front stoops on their properties without a permit or hiring out-of-town contractors who are unfamiliar with our building code," he says. "Sometimes they will mislead the homeowners and tell them that a permit isn't needed for the job."

According to the current building code, a permit is required for the following:

• Construction of new residential dwelling or non-residential buildings.

• Construction of additions to new residential and non-residential units, including garages, carports, sheds, storage building or satellite dishes.

• Location or construction of accessory structures as in the above examples.

• Replacement of any existing structure, which if new would require a permit.
• New roof projections or structural changes to a roof.

• Location of a manufactured home.

• Work that requires state design release, including interior commercial renovation.

• Construction or erection of a permanent swimming pool.

• Construction or erection of a fence.

"If we find that someone has started the building process before applying for the permit, then the permit fee doubles," Mussman states. "Also, if residents do not stay current with inspections throughout the building process, fees are assessed as well."

He adds county residents can appeal their fines via Huntington County Board of Commissioners, which city residents can appeal to the City Board of Works.

The fees aren't assessed as punishment either, Mussman adds.

"Because we live in a state that has building codes, if someone does improvements to their homes without the proper permits, they could run to problems when it's time to sell or refinance their homes," he states. "It's just our way of trying to encourage people to simply get the permits. They are not expensive either."

Mussman says he lived in Alaska, where there is no community development department, so residents are free to make whatever improvements to their homes without needing a permit.

"The problem comes when it's time to refinance your house and you are dealing with a financial institution that is nationwide and used to seeing all those permits that indicate that everything is up to code," he says.

Statistically, the department approved 247 building permits to city residents in 2012. An additional 394 were doled out to residents in the county.

The numbers exclude electrical, plumbing, sign, fence, foundation release and demolition permits.

"We have been one of the busiest departments in regards to permit across the nation," Mussman adds. "This shows that Huntington County is still a growing community, where people take pride in making improvements to their homes."

Complete caption: Mark Mussman (left), executive director of Huntington Countywide Department of Community Development, looks through some recent permit applications with Miranda Snelling, office coordinator. Mussman says permit requests haven’t declined despite the housing slump.