Linda Cameron has lived in the same Richland, Washington, home for more than 40 years. It is a modest home, with only one small bedroom and bathroom. Linda and her late husband, Gary, had long wanted to renovate to add some space, but life always got in the way.
Sadly, Gary passed away in 2012. Over the following years, Linda returned to her dream of adding space to be better able to accommodate visiting family and friends. After consulting with a builder, Linda decided to use proceeds from Gary’s life insurance policy to turn her outdated carport into a garage and to add a second bedroom and bathroom.
But Richland turned that dream into a nightmare. Even though Linda’s simple home renovations meet all public health and safety requirements, Richland refused to grant her a permit. Instead, the city held her ability to renovate her own home hostage. The ransom? Making $60,000 in improvements to city-owned property.
That’s right. Whenever a Richland resident wants to make more than $50,000 in home renovations, the property owner is also required to “renovate” the city street adjoining the property. For Linda, this means paying to widen 400 feet of pavement, install sidewalks, and add curbs and storm drains to the street—all of which the city has deemed necessary to “complete the street in accordance with city standards.” Keep in mind, Linda’s home is set back far from the street and her proposed renovation in no way interferes with the current thoroughfare or necessitates the road upgrades.
Linda can’t afford to renovate her home and the city’s property, too—and she shouldn’t have to. That’s where IJ comes in. In October, we filed suit against Richland for placing unconstitutional conditions on Linda’s right to renovate her own home.
The government often imposes permit requirements on property owners that go well beyond what is reasonable to protect public interests. Instead, these requirements become opportunities to coerce people into giving up their rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that land use and building permit applicants are especially vulnerable to this type of coercion because the government often has broad discretion to deny permits. So long as the permit is more valuable than the costs of the condition, the owner is likely to accede to the government’s demand, no matter how unreasonable.
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This gives rise to, as the Supreme Court has noted, the threat of “out-and-out . . . extortion.” And not just in Richland. While it is difficult to determine how many municipalities impose these fees, the National Association of Home Builders has reported that a majority of states have authorized municipalities to charge them. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that nearly 40% of counties and 60% of communities with populations greater than 25,000 impose such fees.
That makes it all the more important to ensure that any fees a city imposes are directly related—and proportional—to the impact of a proposed building project. For Linda, and for many homeowners like her doing small repairs and renovations, there is no public impact at all. So we’ve put Richland on notice: You can’t treat your residents like ATMs. And we won’t rest until we win.
Paul Avelar is managing attorney of IJ’s Arizona office.