Walt Cook, The Union Democrat

Building activity in Tuolumne County, although far from what it was during the housing boom just a few years ago, has improved over last year,

From Jan. 1 to Nov. 16, the county issued 1,131 building permits for $34 million worth of construction, said Community Development Director Bev Shane. Of those, 45 were for single-family homes valued at $8.4 million.

Permits for single-family homes generally produce a picture of the overall health of the local building industry, Shane said.

The permits tallied include everything from big commercial projects - such as the renovation of the new Kohl's store - to simple water-heater installations and other home improvements.

In 2009 - when the entire state was in the midst of a major construction slump - the county issued 1,025 building permits.

Of those, 49 were for single-family homes. That may exceed this

year's total, but Shane said some pending permit applications could put

this year's figure over 50 before the year is done.

It's not just home-building activity that is picking up. Commercial

building projects are also on the rise, said Tuolumne County Economic

Development Authority Director Larry Cope.

Cope points out that a number of businesses - including Grocery

Outlet, Subway and Taco Bell - have done some renovations locally over

the past year.

In addition, at least one big job is on the horizon that will add

to the building permit figure for next year. A new store - or,

possibly, stores - is slated to occupy the vacant Mervyn's building in

the Sonora Crossroads shopping center.

Cope expects to make an announcement on pending developments at the site after Jan. 1.

Cope called the slight increase in building activity "a good sign."

"It's warming up a little bit, but we have a long way to go," he said. "We're just at the start of a long journey."

Cope noted that because construction has been slow over the past

two years, businesses might be taking advantage of building discounts

brought on by a lack of demand.

"The prices are better than they may have been during the height of the market," Cope said.

In short, with fewer jobs available, contractors have been lowering their bids.

The year's permit count may not provide the whole picture of

building activity in the county. That's because sometimes - especially

with smaller projects - people go ahead with their work without

notifying the county. Doing so amounts to unauthorized construction.

Such people often hope to save some money by not getting the proper

permit or are unaware of the permitting process, Shane said.

Another issue that might keep people from seeking the proper

permits is the increase in assessed - or taxable - valuation of a

building that comes when improvements are made. Property tax comes to 1

percent of the assessed valuation, which is usually significantly less

than market value.

In 2009, the county logged 134 building code violations. This year's numbers are likely comparable, Shane said.

Permits are required for certain projects for safety reasons.

Something as simple as a botched water-heater installation can lead to

a house destroyed by fire - or worse, according to Shane.

"You're dealing with gas," she said, referring to heaters that use propane.

Shane pointed out that the county's goal in charging for building permits isn't to make money.

"We're not allowed by law to make a profit," she said.

Permit fees - which in the case of a water heater comes to around

$100 - simply cover the cost of county staff time for processing permit

paperwork and doing site inspections, Shane said.

When it comes to enforcing the building code, substandard housing

takes priority, according to Shane. She pointed out that there are a

number of items that are exempted from permit requirements. That list

is expected to be updated soon for 2011 and beyond.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, the county's code compliance efforts

have been decreased as the county has slashed staffing levels to deal

with its shrinking budget.

In the past, the county had two full-time code-compliance officers

working for the County Counsel's Office. Now, the Code Compliance

Division no longer exists, and some of Shane's staffers double as

compliance officers.