Sussex on deadline to update regulations

County standards for commercial buildings at odds with state
Residential plans like these are not required to be sealed by a licensed architect or engineer and filed with Sussex County. BY RON MACARTHUR
January 14, 2013

Sussex County must bring its regulations in line with state law relating to architects' and engineers' drawings and seals, but officials say current regulations are so confusing they have delayed taking action.

During the Jan. 8 public hearing, Sussex County Council voted 5-0 to keep the public record open on the subject and readdress it during the Tuesday, Jan. 22 meeting.

State regulations say that anyone who builds or renovates a commercial building must first submit plans and drawings stamped by a Delaware-licensed architect or engineer.

Sussex County code exempts commercial projects under 5,000 square feet. This and other discrepancies have prompted the Delaware Attorney General's Office to give Sussex County officials a 30-day deadline to start the process to amend county code.

To further complicate the matter, the county and state also have different regulations relating to residential structures.

The problem is tied to legal wording in state law and county code. Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, said she wanted legal staff to provide a summary written in layman's language that everyone could understand.

Under county ordinance, drawings sealed by an architect or engineer are required only for residential and commercial structures – including restaurants, churches and other places used by the public – with an area 5,000 square feet or greater. The county also requires sealed drawings for all school and institutional buildings.

Under state law, all residential structures are exempted, no matter what the square footage, but all commercial structures, regardless of square footage, are required to be reviewed and stamped by Delaware-licensed engineers and architects.

In addition, current county code allows architects and engineers registered in any state to seal drawings and specifications submitted with an application for a building permit. State law requires a Delaware-licensed professional to seal the documents.

State law exempts all single-family and duplex structures, sheds, storage buildings and garages as well as farm buildings and renovations or remodeling when the work does not affect structural or safety features of the building or if the work does not require a building permit.

Longstanding problem

This is not a new issue. The Delaware Board of Architects and the Delaware Association of Professional Engineers contacted the county about noncompliance with state law twice over the past six years. Letters were sent to county officials in March 2007 and again in October 2010. Representatives of both organizations said the county did not respond to any correspondence. An official complaint was filed against Sussex County nearly three years ago by professional engineer Wayne Ericksen of Angola.

Ericksen, past president of the Maryland Society of Professional Engineers, said he became aware of discrepancies with state law soon after moving to the Cape Region in 2008. He's spent a good portion of the last four years investigating those discrepancies.

Besides the exemption for some commercial buildings, he said the county has issued building permits without checking to make sure drawings were submitted by licensed architects and engineers. He also said what he couldn't find worried him. “There is a lack of electrical and mechanical drawings filed with the county and many of those that are filed are being done by unlicensed people,” he said. “It's hard in many instances to tell who is doing the work.

“As an engineer I have an obligation to report this and help to fix a systemic problem of sloppy records,” Ericksen said. “Even so, I'm not sure what was proposed during the meeting will fix everything.”

After the meeting, County Administrator Todd Lawson said the major proposed change deals with commercial structures. State law requires sealed drawings for all commercial work regardless of the size of the project, but county code exempts small commercial projects and minor renovations to commercial buildings.

Lawson said county staff would spend the next two weeks working on the ordinance. “It's safe to say what was discussed this past Tuesday will not be the same presentation in two weeks,” he said.

He admitted the proposed ordinance, using wording provided by the Delaware Attorney General's Office, was confusing. “We will revisit the language with the Attorney General's Office,” he said.


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