DIY addition draws city's, neighbors' ire
Two years ago, Stephen Walsh launched an ambitious do-it-yourself home project. Any guy has these kind of desires. Hammers and power tools fit naturally in our hands; we’re hard-wired to build shelter.
So it seemed simple enough for Walsh. He and a contractor buddy would add two stories of space above the garage to his rather modest home in a North End neighborhood.
That project has since divided the neighborhood, and it’s put Walsh at odds with city officials. In April, the city’s chief building inspector ordered Walsh to tear down what he had built. He had taken too long to finish the job, the city said.
Now, he’s under a slight reprieve. The city Zoning Board of Adjustment has told Walsh to get the exterior buttoned up by July 10. You could say he’s under the hammer.
“I thought this was the Live Free or Die state,” Walsh said at his home at 343 Sagamore St. this week. “I should be able to build something at my own pace in my own yard.”
Not so, said the chief city inspector. Walsh has taken too long on his DIY project and violated too many procedures and codes, said David Albin, the city’s chief code enforcer. The work has sat untouched for months at a time, while neighbors complained and the framing was exposed to the elements.
“The city bent over backwards to accommodate Mr. Walsh,” Albin said. “You can build incrementally as long as you move along. You just can’t let it sit.”
Walsh is no longer sitting. He’s abandoned the DIY approach. He’s hired a contractor to do the exterior work. All this week, a crew of about a half-dozen have been working on the addition.
To say the city came down on Walsh is an understatement.
• Over the last two years, building inspectors twice revoked his building permit. Walsh obtained his most recent permit June 18, but only after he had to take the unusual step of hiring an engineer to certify the half-built addition was not damaged over the winter.
• Alderman Ron Ludwig told the Zoning Board the matter has been going on for three years (an exaggeration) and that Walsh should have to take down the addition. He said a half-built addition hurts the values of surrounding property.
• Agreeing with Ludwig is Walsh’s next door neighbor, Robert Leonard, who is a former school board member. “It was a beautiful neighborhood, and we have a three-story eyesore in the middle of it,” Leonard told the Zoning Board.(Another neighbor had a lawyer write the city to complain about Walsh, but four neighbors have signed a petition in support of Walsh.)
If anything, the Zoning Board came to his rescue two weeks ago, when it overruled the inspector’s order and set the July 10 deadline.
“I’m not saying we were fast,” Walsh said about the past two years. A divorced dad of four and a bread-truck driver, he said money’s been tight. He said gall bladder surgery sidelined him at one point. And he said the city put a halt to the project after he made minor revisions to the building permit.
“It’s been a David against Goliath thing,” Walsh said.
Walsh’s house is a testament to the proud New England tradition of house adder-ons. His plans call for a two-story addition that will dwarf the original home — a flat-roofed, two-story ranch that is puny in a neighborhood of 1 1/2- and two-story capes and raised ranches.
The gabled addition will give him a view to the west with lots of space to live in. (His current permit is for storage space, so he will likely have to wage a fight in the future.)
Walsh was working alongside contractors when I visited this week. He and contractor Cale Houston were confident they will meet their deadine.
Albin, the chief code enforcer, is far from apologetic. He faults Walsh for putting a bump-out in the design, which wasn’t part of the original plans.
In the buiding trades, everything is interconnected, and altering the length of one wall can throw off the centerweight of a project.
“You can’t go off and do what you feel like doing,” he said. He said the city is not against the do-it-yourselfer. In fact, city inspectors give a lot of advice to the DIY guy about products and structural requirements, he said.
But the city building code, which is based on international standards, gives a year for a project to be completed, he said.
“It went on and on and on. At least four neighbors called,” Albin said. “It was a mess.”
So Walsh remains busy these next couple of weeks. And while he’ll gripe about the city, he said he wants peace with his neighbors.
“I want to forgive my neighbors,” said Walsh, who attends a local Christian church. “I want to be loving to them. I don’t want to return evil for evil.”
Mark Hayward’s City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.