At their latest meeting, Aquinnah’s select board unanimously approved a higher permit fee structure for all new construction in the town.
The new fees, drafted and presented by Building Administrator Adam Petkus, will charge $10 per $1,000 of building cost. The previous system charged 30 cents per square foot of construction.
The new structure will be the highest of any Island town.
A waiver form will also be available for those who would have difficulty paying. This form will allow for fee elimination, or reduction to $1,000. The waivers will not account for plumbing and electric costs, which require a separate permit process.
At the meeting, Petkus told the board that a key consideration of the new policy is for fees to reflect the costs to Aquinnah for inspecting and reviewing new construction. “We are just not charging enough for the services that we provide,” said Petkus. “I do urge this body to think about the future and how we can afford to pay for the services that are required of us.”
Petkus also stated that increased funding through these fees will allow a lesser burden on taxpayers.
Specific services provided by Petkus’ department — which covers building, wiring, gas and plumbing inspectors — includes inspection, planning review, continuing education of employees, and transportation.
Some homes also require more extensive review. “A larger project — say, a multimillion dollar, or in-the-tens-of-million-dollar project — those kinds of projects take a lot more time than a modest single-family home,” says Petkus. “So in order to cover the hourly cost of that, and what it takes for this department to permit, inspect, and then certify those structures, it takes a lot more time.”
“[W]e are looking to just cover the cost of the operating budget,” adds Petkus.
“When you take that [fee] metric and you change it from square footage to building costs, you’re starting to associate the level of building with the amount of inspections and review that it requires,” he said.
Petkus stressed that the previous fees did not account for differences in construction cost per square foot of a building project. “A town resident building…for example, a 2,000 square foot home…if they’re doing it by the skin of their teeth, they could maybe get by with 400, 450, $500 a square foot. That’s really low,” said Petkus.
“[T]he problem is…using that same metric to represent and for the town to charge somebody who’s building a home for eighteen hundred dollars a square foot,” Petkus added. “And when you’re applying that same metric, it just doesn’t make sense to the workflow, and to the workload and the department, and how the town of Aquinnah, as a municipality, has to absorb that, and how it affects our natural resource.”
Petkus also discussed input from local contractors. “To be honest with you, when I talk to contractors, they consistently ask me why—why [the fees were] low,” he said. “You have to understand that when people are building in town, building a new single-family residence, upwards of $6 million in a lot of cases, they’re expecting to pay a permit fee that’s associated with that level of building.”
Petkus also stated that local contractors will not be negatively impacted by the higher fees. “From my experience talking with contractors, this will not affect the bottom line for the building industry and local builders, as this is built into their cost estimate.”
Board members stated their agreement with Petkus’ recommendations during last week’s meeting.
“I would make a motion to do it as soon as possible, without public comment,” said board member Juli Vanderhoop. “We need to pay your salary,” she said, referring to Petkus. “The town needs this done. We have been undercharging for a long time…this is just business.”
Member Gary Haley also spoke in support. “I think this is the right thing to do. I think the fees are reasonable, [that they] have to come up to this; it’s 2023 now. I know the fees that had been there previously, had been there for 30 years…We have to come up to this level now to be at a level playing field with some of the other towns.”
At the meeting, board chair Tom Murphy confirmed with Petkus that under the new rates, a 2,000-square-foot house built for a million dollars would result in a $10,000 fee. Under the previous rate, the fee would have been $600.
This higher fee, according to Petkus, also reflects Aquinnah’s low volume of new construction compared to other towns, and its high average building cost. “We build very few new houses up here, but when we do, they’re…upwards of multi-million dollar houses,” said Petkus.
“[W]hen you’re talking about a $12-million-dollar house, it seems fair for them to have to pay above a million-dollar [house’s] permit fee,” he added.
A procedural matter raised at the meeting was whether the Select Board, or another town body, would approve waiver forms, a concern raised by Murphy.
“If somebody comes in and asks for a waiver, you could argue that [the Select Board is] giving a consideration to that person because we’re interested in their vote. It’s…far-fetched, believe me, but you could argue that…I want to take those relationships out of the equation so whatever we come up with in regard to waivers is fair and appropriate, and not influenced by any of us individually.”
Petkus supported the point, and proposed that waivers be reviewed by appointed officials. “Every…permit in Aquinnah is a special permit granted by the planning board. Perhaps the planning board would be more appropriate to grant this kind of favor.”
Housing committee chair Mike Herbert also offered his committee as the approval body for the waivers. “It’s nothing we’ve ever done before but it might be appropriate for the housing committee to be able to at least advise on, or give a recommendation on,” he said.
Petkus is also the building inspector in Chilmark, where he is proposing a fee increase to $6.50 per $1,000 of building cost. This rate is also used in Oak Bluffs. Chilmark’s current fee for all new construction is 75 cents per square foot.
A public hearing on this proposal will be held on November 28 at Chilmark’s next Select Board meeting.