New West Tisbury building inspector Joe Tierney steps up to the plans

Retiring West Tisbury building inspector, Ernie Mendenhall, left, and Joe Tierney who has been hired to take his place, hover over a plan in their office in the town hall. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

New West Tisbury building inspector Joe Tierney is enthusiastic when he talks about his new part-time job. “We are really busy. We have house plans, barns, additions, pretty much everything you can thing of,” he said.

Mr. Tierney, 53, who lives in Vineyard Haven, is a novice inspector but an experienced builder. He has been a builder for most of his life. He has both a construction supervisor license and a home improvement license but has limited his work to repairs and caretaking for the last few years.

He thinks his new job fits in well with both his experience and his plans. The position is slated for 30 hours per week, which, he says will leave him enough time for his caretaking work.

He began his new job the second week in July. His official office hours at the town hall are 8:30 to 2:30 pm, but he gets to the office by 8 am and stays until well after closing time to get up to speed. He uses the extra time to organize his work so that his questions are ready when the retiring inspector, Ernest Mendenhall, gets to the office.

“Ernie is wonderful to work with,” Mr. Tierney said. “He’s helpful, knowledgeable, and kind.” He said he is fortunate to have the help of Mr. Mendenhall and his 23 years of experience on the job. Mr. Mendenhall said that he will stick around to help with the workload until Mr. Tierney passes the tests to get his licenses.

Two exams are required to qualify for a conditional inspector’s license and three more to become a certified local inspector. Mr. Tierney said he plans to take the tests as soon as they are offered by the State. His hiring is conditional on passing those tests.

The building inspector’s job has a number of facets. “We issue permits, review plans, inspect projects, manage the electrical and plumbing and gas inspectors and then there’s the glory side, enforcement,” Mr. Tierney said.

A building permit application triggers a search for pre-existing conditions and previous permits. Issuing building permits requires determining whether the plans meet the building codes and comply with zoning and board of health requirements as well as stretch code compliance.

After a permit is issued and construction begins, the building inspections begin. Starting with the excavation, they continue to the foundation, the frame, the chimney, insulation, and the final inspection where in addition to a building inspection all of the various inspections are reviewed.

“Insulation is a big issue now that West Tisbury adopted the stretch code,” Mr. Tierney said. “The code requires higher levels of energy efficiency in new construction than is required by the base code.” Builders must have plans approved by a certified third party inspector before the building inspectors office can accept their application for a building permit, he said.

The third party inspector must also review the project after completion to see that it meets the stretch code before his office can issue an occupancy permit, the last permit in the process of most building projects.

The process of issuing a permit is seldom a straightforward issue of conforming to building requirements. Mr. Tierney said there are a number of pre-existing non-conforming lots, properties that have grandfathered conditions of various sorts that require special attention.

“I have to be a disciple of the West Tisbury bylaws to determine what the pre-existing conditions are, the setback requirements, number of buildings,” he said. “We have to do background work on everything that comes in, even if it is just a shed. There may be multiple files for some properties and some include special permits from the past.”

He said the building department has 30 days to act on most building permits. “We try to turn them around in two weeks.”

Regulating and complaints

The building inspector has the authority to shut down building sites if it is found that a builder falsified information or if he determines a construction site is in violation of zoning or safety laws.

Mr. Mendenhall said, “The office wields a fairly heavy sword. It has a lot of authority under the building code. We usually don’t shut down a project. We usually just nudge toward the path of righteousness. The idea is to keep legitimate projects going forward in a safe and legal manner.”

Resolving complaints about building and zoning issues is another component of the inspector’s job. “We investigate complaints to see if they hold water which often involves digging up the permit history,” he said.

The complaints he has seen so far range from potential junkyards and trash issues to illegal apartments. “Sometimes people bring a camper down and they don’t realize they need a permit to have a camper in their yard,” he said.

“A lot of times we work in concert with the board of health on zoning issues,” he said. “In most cases the homeowner or builder will comply with our request or we come up with an amicable resolution with the parties involved.”


Mr. Tierney’s family moved to the Vineyard when he was 7, in 1968. “I built my first treehouse when I was 12,” he said.

He graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, class of 1978, and majored in business management at Southern New Hampshire University.

While living in New Britain, Conn., after college and a year or so in Arizona, he managed a convenience store. “I called my father about working for him right after I was robbed,” he said. “They used the finger in the pocket weapon. Two days later another employee was held up with a gun.”

Mr. Tierney and his wife, Amy, moved to the Vineyard soon after the robbery.

He went to work with his dad, Joseph Sr., who ran Tierney Construction. He said that their specialty was single-family homes and when that market moved toward modular construction they built more high-end houses.

After his dad died he finished the projects they had started together and then began to take on more renovation work. He now tries to limit himself to caretaking, which he said he can handle in the time he has after his inspecting work.

Mr. Tierney and his wife live in Vineyard Haven. They have two children, a daughter who lives at home and a son who is a structural engineer in Burlington, Vermont. He is a lieutenant in the Tisbury Fire Department and is chairman of Tisbury’s emergency services facility building committee. Until recently he trained beginning fireman as a certified fire instructor.

His wife, Amy, is the assistant superintendent for business affairs in the superintendent of schools office on the Vineyard.

Mr. Tierney and Mr. Mendenhall think there should be more jobs in the building trades this fall, at least in West Tisbury. They said buildings permits are up from 88 during the first seven months of 2012 to 102 in the same period of 2013, a 16 percent increase. This includes all building permits, new houses as well as garages, additions, barns and even a few unusual projects like a $2 million pool house.

Mr. Mendenhall said that even though the pile of permit applications is getting deeper, he thinks Mr. Tierney can handle it. “He hit the ground running. He’s younger and handsomer and he has a very good handle on the parameters of the job already.”