WRAL Investigates

'It was a nightmare': Man warns NC homeowners about little-known land rule

Posted July 6, 2015

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— A Raleigh homeowner says he was forced to spend thousands of dollars to rip out a patio, walkway and concrete platform in order to sell his house – all due to a little-known housing rule designed to protect drinking water.

Pat Pannese said he was blindsided when the mortgage surveyor informed him his .21-acre property in the Bedford Falls neighborhood exceeded the city's impervious surface ordinance.

“We were devastated,” he said. “That's the first we had ever heard of the rule.”

Following state codes enacted in 2001, local governments can limit homeowners, especially in watershed areas, in the amount of ground that is covered by solid surfaces. The rule applies to all homeowners, even those who don’t live in a watershed.

Once a house is built on a lot, hard surfaces – such as a roof, patio, walkway or driveway – can only cover a certain percentage of the land. If too much land is covered, the homeowner is responsible for removing the hard surface.

The reason is due to rain, which falls on natural surfaces and slowly filters its way into the earth and nearby water supplies. However, water from roofs, sidewalks, driveways and patios collects and flows unfiltered posing more of a contamination threat to drinking supplies.

“Water quality is a critical issue in this area," said Michael Orbon, Wake County's water quality director.

He says impervious rules are important in protecting the drinking water supply and that many homeowners don’t understand the breadth of the rules. For example, gravel and dirt driveways are also considered impervious because the soil is compacted.

Tim Maloney is Wake County's planning, development, and inspections director and oversees the unincorporated areas. Every home under his jurisdiction that’s not in a watershed has an impervious surface limit of 30 percent, meaning only a third of the property can be covered by a hard surface.

Since Raleigh, Cary and other municipalities have their own regulations, Maloney admits most people probably have no idea about their impervious surface rules.

“I think there's room for improvement in any way that we communicate with the public,” he said.

Real estate agent Melissa Schambs says homeowners are constantly caught off guard by the limitations, partly because rules vary depending on where they live.

“I would call it a very big issue,” she said. “Pretty much wherever you are you can run into some kind of impervious limit.”

In Pannese’s case, he spent thousands tearing out a concrete walkway in the front of his house, a platform on the side of his house and a patio in his backyard. Raleigh Storm Water inspectors told him it all had to be replaced by sod to bring the property into compliance so he could sell the house.

“It was a nightmare and very stressful,” he said. “We had to make accommodations to the buyer and spend all this money.”

Pannese said he never changed anything after moving into the house in 2006. The issue apparently fell through the cracks when the house transferred from the developer.

“Why would we have a problem today when we didn't have one when we bought the house?” Pannese said.

Schambs says someone "dropped the ball."

“You could say it was the builder who knew he had an impervious limit. You could say it was someone in the building department who should have channeled it somewhere else," she said.

Homeowners are urged to contact their county or town planning department to find out what their impervious surface limits are. It varies by county, town and even neighborhood, so there's no simple chart to see if you're in compliance.


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  • Jack Bailey Jul 8, 2015
    user avatar

    Just another way for a bureaucrat to dictate another penalty to an unsuspecting tax payer. If the City gave a building permit to add the covered area, it is their own problem. The home owner should tell them to place that regulation in a place where the sun doesn't shine. However, he was caught having to give in in order to sell his house.

  • Al Smith Jul 7, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Because people should need a permit to build a patio on their property? That seems excessive.

  • Letha Book Jul 7, 2015
    user avatar

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    From the article....
    Pannese said he never changed anything after moving into the house in 2006. The issue apparently fell through the cracks when the house transferred from the developer.

    “Why would we have a problem today when we didn't have one when we bought the house?” Pannese said.

  • John Broome Jul 7, 2015
    user avatar

    I was pulling building permits for decks/porches/sunrooms between 2001-2004 and the impervious surfaces rule was in effect for City of Raleigh/Wake County and city of Chapel Hill at least. If he had a permit for any of his projects he would have been aware of the issue.

  • Charlie Leagra Jul 7, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Any attorneys reading this and want to take this on? I see it coming to that.

  • Charlie Leagra Jul 7, 2015
    user avatar

    I am currently in a similar situation. We bought our house new, and DID verify at the time it was purchased that all the necessary permits were filed AND approved by Wake County. 11 years later, when we attempted to get a permit to add a deck, we are told we are already over the impervious surface limit. Mysteriously, the agency "can't find" the original permits (and won't accept our copies). The tool they used to measure and determine we are over the limit is literally a "toy" that has no precision to be accurate. We have had measurements done by a contractor and ourselves, and simply can not get them to accept or revise their data with our ACTUAL measurements, citing that their "aerial photo" and measurements done by their toy of our property is their authoritative source of information. We even requested they send an inspector out to see for themselves and were told "we don't send anyone out".

  • Norman Lewis Jul 7, 2015
    user avatar

    Seems the developer or the contractor that installed the "illegal" structures should be responsible for the removal costs. How was a permit obtained for an item that did not meet code? If the city issued a permit to build the excess structures, they should either waive enforcement of the rule or pay for the removal. The person or agency making the error is responsible for making it right.

  • Melanie Lane Jul 7, 2015
    user avatar

    my understanding is putting in these items should have a permit associated with them, if there was a permit that should have protected the homeowner but if they were put in without permission than this is the consequence. Make sure you get proper permits on all items, signed off by the city. If you are buying a property make sure you get a survey & home owners title insurance (not just the lenders) and it should at the least help you avoid these items happening. Otherwise, pay attention to what's going on locally, the issue of impervious surfaces was talked about a lot a few years ago when Chapel Hill flooded. I'm very sorry they had these issues but I'd wonder what they did back in 2006 when they bought it - did they get all the recommended inspections? if the builder ignored the rules then they would not have had a sign off by the city so I'd contemplate going after the builder, if the builder did properly disclose all these things then someone, somewhere didn't

  • Steven Shannon Jul 7, 2015
    user avatar

    What is the requirement for city of Raleigh? Most of the teardown projects I see inside the beltline don't come close to meeting the 30% limit... many of them build right to the easements.

  • Nancy McCormick Jul 7, 2015
    user avatar

    One correction...we all live in a watershed!!