Government agencies not liable for mistakes employees may make; responsibility for ensuring accuracy of records rests on homeowners
Prospective homebuyers beware you will be liable if municipal employees made mistakes when the sellers obtained building permits for improvements to the property you are buying.
I know because I just learned that the hard way.
A couple of months ago I bought a house in one of Oak Cliff’s gay enclaves. I fell in love with it at first sight. One of the features I most admired was the large, attractive wooden fence that surrounded the side and back yards, providing substantial privacy and safety.
I still love the house and the fence, but I have been advised by Dallas Code Compliance Department officials that the fence does not comply with city ordinances. To bring it into compliance, I must make adjustments to the fence or apply for a variance from the Board of Adjustments.
Mistakes that employees in the Development Services Department’s Building Inspection Division made in 2004 have put me in this position, according to Code Compliance officials.
I learned about the problem three weeks ago when I received a notice in the mail from a Code Compliance inspector who advised me my 8-foot fence was two feet too high on the sides and across the back, and four feet too high across the front. The inspector told me in the letter to call him.
When I talked with the inspector he told me he had sent similar notices to everyone in the neighborhood who had fences taller than six feet. He gave me five days to either start cutting off the top of my fence or to pay a nonrefundable variance application fee that he advised would cost $700.
When I spoke to the inspector, I had already talked to City Council member Ed Oakley who told me the information in the letter was incorrect. In fact, residents can build fences up to nine feet tall in Dallas, but anything over six feet requires a building permit, according to the city’s Web site.
The councilman suggested I ask the inspector for more time to resolve the problem. But the inspector refused the request, advising me I could not “sit around and do nothing” about the fence. He warned I would be subject to a citation if I did not meet his five-day deadline.
After I read the ordinance I called the inspector again and left a message for him questioning the accuracy of his information. He called back and acknowledged the fence could be 8-foot tall, but he claimed a building permit was never obtained for its construction.
I realized then I was in for real trouble, and I made more phone calls. I called Oakley again, as well as Mayor Laura Miller and City Manager Mary Suhm. I called Miller and Suhm because the inspector seemed uninterested when I told him a City Council member disagreed with him about the city’s ordinance.
All of the officials I contacted have monitored Code Compliance’s handling of my case since then, and Oakley has had several conversations with Code Compliance officials. Oakley is not my district’s representative on the council, but he is our only gay council member so I felt comfortable seeking his advice.
Both Oakley and Miller said they were troubled by what was happening to me. An assistant of Suhm’s called and promised to check into the problem. Both Oakley and Miller said they frequently check out complaints made by residents about city government’s operation.
Ade Williams, assistant director of Code Compliance, called me after the department’s director, Kathleen Davis, began receiving e-mails and phone calls from the city officials. He promised an investigation and advised me he was suspending enforcement of any action against me. He noted I had not been treated in the “customer friendly” manner that the city is now demanding of municipal employees.
For the record, the compliance inspector was courteous during the conversations, but I believe he was misinformed and inflexible. He told me a Code Compliance case was opened on the fence in 2004, but it was never closed.
I then called the previous owner of the house who seemed stunned and angry to learn the fence had become the subject of controversy. He advised me the fence was “100 percent permitted, inspected and approved” when it was completed in 2004. He noted that he had been required to move the fence back several feet after it was first built to comply with the permit inspector’s demands.
On Oakley’s advice I went to the Building Inspection Division at 320 E. Jefferson St. in Oak Cliff and discovered a permit had indeed been issued. A call to learn the status of the permit revealed it was an approved, completed permit. It cost me 10 cents for a copy of the permit and 10 minutes of my time to learn the compliance investigator had given me incorrect information about the building permit.
At that point I thought I was home free. But I was wrong.
Williams arranged a meeting with me on Wednesday morning to discuss the results of his investigation. It was a disturbing meeting. I learned the fence must be moved even further back or I must apply for a variance, which requires a $610 fee rather than the $700 quoted by the compliance inspector, to get the fence in compliance. The seller had not moved the fence back far enough even though he apparently satisfied the inspector, who no longer works for the city.
During our meeting I complained to Mr. Williams about the inefficiency of Building Inspection Division employees who finalized the permit even though the fence apparently was not in compliance. I also complained about Code Compliance Department officials waiting two years to take action on it, even though their own records indicated they had been aware of the problem. He reminded me that, by law, government bodies are exempt from liability when employees make mistakes. He had already consulted with the City Attorney’s office on that issue.
Williams did apologize for the way the case was handled, and he is giving me a generous amount of time to resolve the problem. He said the compliance inspector erred in the letter and in his demands about how quickly I should resolve the problem.
“I’m going to work with you,” Williams repeatedly told me.
He said the other property owners who were targeted are also getting more time to bring their fences into compliance.
I’m grateful for the investigation of my complaint, and I appreciate the extra time I now have to solve the problem. But I’m amazed by how much havoc can be caused by government employees who either do not know how to do their jobs or don’t care whether they are done properly.
And I want all other residents of the city to know about the demands city officials could make on them when municipal employees don’t do their jobs properly. You can fight City Hall, but the odds are stacked against you by law.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 18, 2006.