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July 19, 2019

6/4/2019 7:30:00 AM
County works to tighten rules on riparian replacement homes
Staff cites abuse of building new home to replace existing one

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

The Oneida County zoning committee has directed the county's zoning staff to come up with a general policy that would require riparian property owners to have a bond or pay a cash deposit when they want to keep and use an existing home until a new home to replace it is built.

The issue would only come into play on properties that do not have enough riparian frontage width for multiple dwellings.

Many times homeowners want or need to stay in their existing home until the new one is finished, and then they convert the existing dwelling into cold storage or have it removed. The problem is, zoning director Karl Jennrich told zoning committee members recently, while many people have legitimate desires to play by the rules, others abuse the system and never convert the first home into cold storage or remove it.

Jennrich cited a current example of a couple he believes are genuine in their desires to have one home.

"They don't have enough frontage for a home and a guest cottage," Jennrich said of the couple's situation. "They have a perfectly good home that the individual either wants to have moved by a house mover or they want to convert it into some kind of cold storage facility."

Jennrich said the homeowners haven't decided what to do with the existing home, but he said they have a legitimate reason for wanting to build a new one.

"He has some health issues, so he wants to build a new ranch-style home where everything is on the upper level and he still has a full basement, and it is going to be a little bit closer to the ordinary high-water mark of the lake, in a flatter area off the road," he said.

That situation and others like it have his staff struggling, Jennrich said.

"Sometimes we get burned, sometimes we don't," he said. "It's been a big issue for us. So far right now we have been stating to people that, because you want to build a new home and there is already an existing home, either you have to convert it to cold storage and then apply for the permit so we can inspect, or get rid of it and then it is a non-issue."

But Jennrich acknowledged that can be a hardship for people just trying to keep the existing home temporarily.

"Some people would really like to utilize that structure to live in while they are constructing a new home," he said. "Or they have a smaller cabin that they want to convert and use as cold storage."

The other side of the coin is, Jennrich said, there are people who do not have any intentions of temporary use.

"We have seen instances where a few years down the line the property transfers and, lo and behold, suddenly you have a home and a guest cottage," he said.

Jennrich said he had no recommendations for the committee but wanted guidance. Perhaps, he said, the department could require a bond or a $500 or $1,000 cash deposit, both as a way to verify that the existing home really was gone or converted to cold storage, and to give property owners an incentive to follow the rules.

And, if the home wasn't converted or removed, the county could keep the deposit and still enforce the ordinance, he said.

Then, too, Jennrich said, the county could decide to take a hard line and not allow the practice at all.

"We could just toe the line and say, 'Sorry, you can't have two homes on a property because you don't have enough frontage,'" Jennrich said.

Supervisor and committee chairman Scott Holewinski said the department in the past has insisted on having the existing home removed first.

"We said that they have to remove it first because we've been stung too many times with saying you have to remove it within a year and it never gets removed, or the house doesn't get converted into cold storage after a year," Holewinski said.

And, Jennrich said, there's the issue of what exactly a conversion to cold storage means.

"The question always comes up, 'What do I have to remove to convert it into cold storage?'" Jennrich said. "They will remove fixtures, but the plumbing is still there because it's too expensive to get into the walls and get rid of it all."

Supervisor Mike Timmons said the issue was a mirror image of what was going on in the county with garage conversions.

"We're getting more and more nice garages that have a bathroom, with three dormers, and it turns into a cabin, and that's what these are," Timmons said. "This is just the reverse of the garage factor. I don't know how to beat it until the tax man catches up with them. That's the only way we ever find out, if they ever do."

Supervisor Jack Sorensen wondered if after-the-fact inspections could be performed after property owners say the new home is completed, and that, Jennrich said, would come into play with a bond or deposit.

Holewinski said he believed a bond with enforcement follow-up was the way to go.

"My gut feeling is that there is an occupancy permit on the new home that gets constructed and there should be a time period after the occupancy permit is issued that the other house is either put into cold storage or removed from the site, and there should be some type of cash bond that if it isn't done in that period of time, we have it done," he said.

Jennrich said that could be accomplished either through an ordinance change or by adopting a county policy.

"If you want your permit, you have to have a bond," he said of a potential policy. "I would have to take a look at what form of financial assurances we could use. It could be like a $500 deposit, or an x amount of deposit with the department, which is refundable upon completion."

The bottom line is, Holewinski said, the guidance from the committee is for staff to fashion a policy requiring some form of financial assurance, and that enables the county not only to claim the deposit if conversion or removal doesn't happen but to still enforce the ordinance.

Jennrich said it has been a struggle because his staff hears both sides of the story.

"I believe there should be something in place to make sure it is done," he said. "To me, if there is a financial cash bond then we can at least say, 'OK, you didn't do it, so not only are we taking your cash bond but we're still going to enforce,' and at least you have the $750 or $1,000 or whatever you determine and say we are keeping that money and still enforcing."

The other side of the story are the people intending on doing what they say they are going to do and really have a need for temporary occupancy, Jennrich said.

"But then there are people who say, 'I really want to use that structure to occupy while working on my house. I'm up here on weekends. I need somewhere to go,'" he said.

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