November 19, 2009 in Washington Voices

Liberty Lake builder raising ground to finish house

Work will satisfy height restriction
By The Spokesman-Review

A roofer works on a house overlooking Liberty Lake that Spokane County halted construction on last November because it was over a 35-foot height restriction. The owner, Michael Rogers, plans to terrace a slope to decrease the home’s height.
(Full-size photo)

Builder Michael Rogers is finishing his long-delayed house at Liberty Lake by raising the ground to satisfy a height restriction.

A Spokane County hearing examiner decision in July required Rogers to shave 11 1/4 feet off what would have been a 54 3/4-foot, five-level hillside house, by some measurements.

The hearing examiner, Michael Dempsey, said Rogers could shorten the house by using a retaining wall to pile dirt around the bottom of it. Rogers, who plans to live in the home once it is completed, had worried before the decision that he would have to redesign the home.

The house wasn’t supposed to have been more than 35 feet tall, but the county Department of Building and Planning accidentally approved plans for a taller house, although the exact height was in dispute. After that, the challenge was to live with the mistake without making it worse.

The height Dempsey approved as a variance from the area’s “rural conservation” zoning requirements was 43 ½ feet, which is 8 1/2 feet above the standard maximum.

However, what doesn’t show doesn’t count. County zoning regulations measure building heights according to finished grades, not original topography.

In his case, Rogers said a 20- to 30-foot-tall retaining wall would have been needed to raise the grade sufficiently because of a steep slope. His lot at 24817 E. Liberty Creek Road has a nearly 30 percent grade on average.

A retaining wall sufficient to satisfy the height limit of 43 ½ feet would have been unsightly and prohibitively expensive, Rogers said. Instead, he devised a way to terrace the slope, which his engineer told him would pass muster with the county.

“Now it will blend in with the mountain,” he said.

Rogers said the changes and weather damage probably will cost about $20,000. The structure hadn’t been waterproofed when he was ordered to stop work last November.

He said he has roofed and sealed the house and hopes to complete it within three months.

Dempsey’s decision to allow the house to be 43 ½ feet tall is only slightly different than the 42-foot-3-inch-tall height county Building and Planning Department officials approved by mistake in an April 2007 decision.

The problems that led to Dempsey’s ruling began in June 2006 when planner Kathy Sanders erroneously certified that Rogers’ plans complied with the 35-foot height restriction.

Sanders was subsequently disciplined for repeating a blunder two other planners, Bill Moser and John Nunnery, committed in 2002.

In that 2002 case, the county paid a Liberty Lake couple $80,000 for delay-caused losses in construction of a home that also wound up about 8 feet too tall. Nunnery had left county employment by the time the mistake was discovered, and Moser wasn’t disciplined. Rogers has not filed any claim for losses as a result of the mistake.

The department adopted procedures after Sander’s error to prevent another such mistake.

Rogers was granted a building permit in April 2007 for plans that showed a house that would be 42 feet, 3 inches tall.

What was done was done, officials said. They couldn’t take it back.

But, Dempsey said, Rogers proceeded to build a “significantly” taller house, up to 56 feet by some measurements. Neighbors objected to the “excessive height and bulk of the residence,” Dempsey said in his decision.

He said building and planning officials underestimated the magnitude of Sanders’ mistake. The errors were apparently rooted in the county’s complicated formula for determining the average elevation of sloping ground.

Mistakes in calculations based on small-scale drawings are magnified when translated to actual dimensions.

Dempsey ruled against the nearly 20 feet in extra height that Rogers requested for the house that he had already framed. But Dempsey sided with him on a setback variance.

Dempsey’s decision allows the house to be 1 foot, 3 inches taller than the county planners allowed when they miscalculated their original mistake.

“It’s a pretty messed up thing,” Rogers said. “I don’t understand it all that well.”

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