Navigating the requirements for construction and zoning can be complicated.
Inspection and permitting requirements are largely governed by the Uniform Construction Code (UCC) under Pennsylvania law, including what work requires inspection and permitting and what type is required.
The UCC itself is a fairly complicated and massive document that outlines homogeneous standards for construction across areas that have adopted it.
Pennsylvania adopted the code in 1999, under the Pennsylvania Construction Code Act, making usage of the standards a requirement, with enforcement handled at the local level.
"We're not here to be obstructionists," Warren City Manager Nancy Freenock said. "It's a state law; we' don't get any choice. We didn't author it, we just enforce it, and we want to make sure the law applies the same to everyone."
As for zoning requirements, which outline building types and usage allowable in a given area, they are set at the municipal or county level and can be amended over time. Borders for different usage zones can also appear arbitrary. For instance, simply crossing a street in some cases can take you from an area zoned commercial to one zoned for exclusive residential use.
All of this leaves a situation where knowing the rules concerning construction, modification, alteration or usage of a structure can be a full-time job, and even those who do know the requirements still have to contact an official for any permitting or inspections needed.
For those who don't have the time to dedicate towards intensive study and training of the subjects followed by constant monitoring of any changes, there is an easier solution: Ask.
"Come in early," Warren City Planner David Hildebrandt urged. "Even when purchasing a property. Speak to us first about the zoning. A lot of people buy a property and then say, 'I purchased this property and didn't realize...,' Speak to us first."
"People don't always realize what the requirements are," City of Warren Code Official Alan Gustafson said.
Going ahead with a project without knowing the requirements can cause very real headaches down the road.
Code officials can stop work on a project, require removal of what has been completed and you could face a fine. Additionally, the removal requirements and fines still apply even after project completion and can even impact your ability to sell a property later. Buildings not meeting code standards or lacking documentation of inspections can even be deemed unfit for occupation until all code requirements are met.
"It's easier to come in to see the city before you do anything," Freenock noted. "We're here to serve the public. It's easier all around to speak to us first. Come in, or even just pick up the phone."
"We're not going to make anyone do anything we don't have to," Gustafson added.