Permit Predicament: Homeowner's Dilemma in California's Landscaping Project

Debashis

Well-known member
Sep 5, 2023
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Here's an intriguing scenario recently posted on Reddit, highlighting the challenges some homeowners in California are facing with permits. In this case, a homeowner embarked on an extensive landscaping project, only to discover that their contractor had already started work, including breaking ground for a retaining wall, before the permit was officially approved. Following inquiries about the permit, work was promptly halted, and unfortunately, the permit was ultimately denied due to insufficient details in the plans.

Now, the homeowner finds themselves in a predicament, having already invested over $15,000 in the project and growing concerns about the impending rainy season potentially exacerbating the situation. The contractor has suggested moving forward without the permit, but understandably, the homeowner is grappling with the decision, torn between the desire to complete the project and the importance of adhering to proper permitting procedures.
 
Location
California, United States
That does seem like a tricky situation, not least because the homeowner already started a conversation with the City about the work they're doing. I think it's pretty common for homeowners to do some work here and there without getting a permit (e.g., installing a new electrical outlet), even though they're technically supposed to have one, if the potential risk seems small enough. I noticed that's why there's some discussion in that thread about the prevalence of the same sorts of unpermitted short retaining walls throughout the homeowner's neighborhood.

I also live in California and was considering a retaining wall along a sloped part of my yard at one point. The contractors who gave quotes advised that the wall would need to be limited to 3 feet since that's the maximum they could do without pulling a permit. If it wouldn't make a big difference to their project and their jurisdiction has the same exemption, the homeowner could consider revising their design from 4 feet to 3 feet and avoid the need for a permit altogether.
 
Seems that the contractor was crooked and should eat the $15,000. Perhaps they falsely assumed that they didn't need a permit, as the homeowner's neighbors did not. However, they should have done their due diligence and should have checked with the city before proceeding.

Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in Calfornia, as fire regulations and environmental regulations necessitate painstaking detail. Plants have to be fire resistant. Him talking about material removal isn't a concern where I live, but it isn't surprising. That would depend on what the old retaining wall was made out of.

Basically, when you need a building permit, that's when the fire and environmental regulations come crashing down on you, and you have to comply and come out clean in order to make any progress. The city is concerned that the plants involved will pose a fire danger to the neighbors and also to any local wildlife, trying to avoid any invasive species and whatnot. We also had to plant plants to deal with soil erosion, which may also be a concern near the new retaining wall.

Unfortunately, now that the city has been alerted, they will stop the project if the homeowner wishes to illegally continue. They went after my dad for refusing to plant one single tree on his landscape plan. The homeowner will have to wait for their resubmission to clear. If they cannot wait, and the lack of a retaining wall poses an imminent danger to their house from flooding and erosion damage, they may have to sue their city to resume building quicker.
 
Here's an intriguing scenario recently posted on Reddit, highlighting the challenges some homeowners in California are facing with permits. In this case, a homeowner embarked on an extensive landscaping project, only to discover that their contractor had already started work, including breaking ground for a retaining wall, before the permit was officially approved. Following inquiries about the permit, work was promptly halted, and unfortunately, the permit was ultimately denied due to insufficient details in the plans.

Now, the homeowner finds themselves in a predicament, having already invested over $15,000 in the project and growing concerns about the impending rainy season potentially exacerbating the situation. The contractor has suggested moving forward without the permit, but understandably, the homeowner is grappling with the decision, torn between the desire to complete the project and the importance of adhering to proper permitting procedures.
This situation is definitely going to leave the homeowner completely frustrated because the permit have been denied due to insufficient details in the plans. I believe that the contractor must have assumed that the permit would come out approved so he wouldn't have anything to worry about and at time must have covered up a lot of work than waiting for the permit to be approved before he get started. Now, everything is back to ground zero. I would be fuming if I were the homeowner.
 
Agreed, @linux.poet and @Heatman. If I were paying that kind of money for a major project like a retaining wall, I would think that the contractor obtaining proper permits wouldn't even be a question. I'm also wondering if the homeowner may have a case against the contractor, should the need for legal action arise. They mention how the contract stipulates the project will be built to code and now the City has reviewed and denied their permit. It seems like the contractor could be at risk of being in breach of contract.

Basically, when you need a building permit, that's when the fire and environmental regulations come crashing down on you, and you have to comply and come out clean in order to make any progress. The city is concerned that the plants involved will pose a fire danger to the neighbors and also to any local wildlife, trying to avoid any invasive species and whatnot. We also had to plant plants to deal with soil erosion, which may also be a concern near the new retaining wall.

Agreed - fire abatement and slope stabilization would definitely seem to be important considerations for the City when reviewing the homeowner's planting plan. The homeowner also mentioned that one the reason they didn't qualify for a short-wall exemption was because of their planned surcharge load (i.e., vegetation/other features on top of the retained soil contributing to lateral forces on the wall) exceeded acceptable limits. So the wall's function as a load bearing structure is obviously an important consideration as well. I don't think anyone would want their contractor to wing it when it comes to the geotechnical stability of their property.
 
This situation is definitely going to leave the homeowner completely frustrated because the permit have been denied due to insufficient details in the plans. I believe that the contractor must have assumed that the permit would come out approved so he wouldn't have anything to worry about and at time must have covered up a lot of work than waiting for the permit to be approved before he get started. Now, everything is back to ground zero. I would be fuming if I were the homeowner.

I didn't see sufficient details on whether the permitting process was done online or was carried out offline, but part of the reason the contractor will decide to start work is when the permit process is offline and was taking a lot of time to be granted. This is what most people that are developing are kicking against as permits should be done online and approved or denied as fast as possible to help developers know the next step that they are going to take.
 
In order to solve the homeowner's dilemma, everyone needs to work together. Homeowners should make smart decisions, save water, and collaborate with others. This way, they can have lovely outdoor spaces while helping California's sustainable future.
 
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