How to fight a city ordinance and win

In the construction industry, there are times when you, as a contractor, design professional or property owner, will completely disagree with what the building department has made a determination on.  It can be a zoning issue such as a home too big for the area you are in or construction methodology such as the use of spray foam insulation and the requirement to post “No Storage” signage in the attic.  Most of the time, it is the plan reviewer or building official trying to do the best they can to interpret the building code to protect the public welfare.  Some rulings or positions a city can take are based on current events which may have increased the public’s sensitivity to a particular issue or complaint.  In either instance, the building department is constantly trying to balance pragmatism and the pubic good.

So what do you do when you are convinced that an issue or decision on what you are building is wrong?  The old adage of “you can’t fight city hall” comes to mind for many.  What I’ve found is that if you truly believe what you are doing is correct (and not just for you but for everybody) then odds are, the people in the building department will see it too.  It just takes diligence and conducting yourself respectfully with the building officials you are trying to convince.  Case in fact, in the City of Deltona, there is a city ordinance requiring a 6” thick slab of concrete for driveways.  Now, in Florida, the code only requires 4”, however due to many recent driveways which were poorly installed, the city erred on the side of caution and decided to require 6” thick slabs for all the residential driveways.  On the surface, this seems like a simple solution to a simple problem.   But what happens to property owners who can’t afford a 50% increase on cost for their driveway already budgeted?  The same goes for the contractors who will either need to absorb the cost or pass on a change order to the client.

You may ask yourself, “why spend time to fight this?”.  After all, it is a city ordinance so it will not change.  Not without a lengthy and costly fight anyways.  Well, if you are planning to fight against the city, then you are right.  Telling someone that they are wrong and you are right sets the stage for a protracted battle.  But I challenge you to think of it in these terms instead;  if you fight with them instead of against them, you stand a chance of really making a change.

In this particular scenario, the building official and the city engineer had an open mind about an alternate solution.  They simply wanted to protect the public interests in better driveways that didn’t crack so easily.  The solution from our team was to present calculations from our structural engineer to show that at a 3000 psi mix of 4” concrete was just as nearly strong as 6” of concrete at 2500 psi and the finished product was 2.5 times stronger than what the state building code required.  This solution offered a balance approach which addressed the affordability and quality of the finished product.  To the credit of the chief building official and the city engineer, they truly cared about how the ordinance impacted the homeowners.  They didn’t just blindly follow a ruling but actually considered the reasons behind it.  This allowed for an open dialogue and collaboration to find a solution together.

The moral of the story is to pick your builders wisely, pick your battles and understand who your allies truly are.  After all, the only real enemy is ignorance.