King County’s Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES) has had a long-standing marketing program known unofficially as “1-800 Turn in Your Neighbor.” It has been a very effective way to bring in the funds necessary to make payroll each month, since DDES must finance its operations through fees and fines rather than tax dollars. They also periodically run a marketing program designed to get folks to turn in themselves. It is called “Amnesty.”
A quick look at the law.com dictionary shows the following definition:
Amnesty – n. a blanket abolition of an offense by the government, with the legal result that those charged or convicted have the charge or conviction wiped out.
The DDES amnesty falls rather short of the definition. If you turn yourself in, the fees you pay will be half what you will pay if your neighbor turns you in. It’s a bureaucracy’s idea of a half-price sale. I think it would be entirely appropriate for DDES to have a real amnesty for property owners. Currently, property owners are held liable for any improvements done to their property without the appropriate fees paid to DDES even if those improvements were by previous owners. Over the years, DDES and its predecessor BALD, have done a pathetic job of catching those doing unpermitted work. Concurrently, those department’s ineptitude has caused long lead times and high costs to get official permission which has led many to not bother asking for that permission. Meanwhile, DDES has no fiduciary responsibility to property owners whose work they do inspect when they fail to identify life-threatening conditions. They collect fees as though they are professionals but are not held to any professional standard whatever.
I can personally attest to the futility of asking DDES a pre-purchase question such as, “Has the accessory dwelling on the property I am about to purchase been permitted?” The answer was “Yes” before the purchase but “No” four years later. It is outrageous that buyers, who have no way to determine undisclosed problems with DDES, should be held responsible for the sins of previous owners. DDES should be held accountable for not doing their job when the infraction occurred. Some future owner who has done nothing wrong should not pay for their incompetence. Those future owners should be held harmless by King County.
It is time to wipe the slate and start over. Put a real amnesty in place now and forgive all past transgressions. Activity on any property that is causing provable harm to some neighbor can be stopped via the common law courts. Put a system in place at DDES so that future buyers have a guarantee backed by the County that they are not liable if the current owner has not followed the rules after the amnesty date. Allow buyers to sue King County when they discover that work inspected by DDES is not to code and is unsafe. Ratchet down the regulations to a point where permits can be obtained quickly and for low cost. Move most DDES employees to inspections instead of lengthy plan review. Plan review should be the job of engineers and architects who have a fiduciary responsibility to, and can be sued by, property owners for failures of their professional obligations.