WRAL Investigates

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

Posted July 6, 2015 6:15 p.m. EDT
Updated July 6, 2015 8:37 p.m. EDT

— 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.