Luzerne County zoning office is cracking down on occupancy permits

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -

The Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.

Pete G. Wilcox | Times Leader file photo

Dozens of property owners who built homes or other structures the last few years are receiving letters from Luzerne County’s planning/zoning office requiring them to submit paperwork and pay a fee for an occupancy certificate, county officials said.

Staffing shortages in recent years caused the office to get behind enforcing the occupancy certificate requirement in the county’s zoning ordinance, which applies to 23 municipalities that opted for county zoning, said county Planning/Zoning Executive Director James Ferry.

“This department had been gutted over the last five years due to budgetary reduction in staff and retirements,” said Ferry, who was hired in April.

The county added two new analysts in the office this year to speed up planning and zoning reviews and inspections and complete more work in-house. The office has two other staffers.

“We’re trying to get more proactive,” Ferry said.

Before issuing an occupancy certificate, the office must review new structures to ensure they comply with minimum setbacks and other requirements in the zoning ordinance, Ferry said.

The certificates cost $40 for homes and $250 for industrial structures.

Ferry said the office always alerted property owners they must apply for occupancy certificates when they submit applications for zoning permits, but follow-up is required because some fail to comply.

He may propose switching the name to a zoning compliance certificate because he suspects some property owners are confused. Municipalities also require occupancy certificates to verify new construction meets building code requirements, and these certificates have no connection to the county ones, he said.

The office is not charging penalties or interest for those who have failed to comply but reserves that option if a property owner refuses to pay, Ferry said.

“We consider it only fair that everyone meet the responsibility, even if they had avoided doing so for a while,” he said.

Ferry said the crackdown will generate revenue for the county justified by the work involved in reviewing the structures.

His office also has started verifying the new construction has been added to the tax rolls, Ferry said. The checks found several occupied properties built in the last year that must be picked up by the assessor’s office, he said.

The 23 municipalities that rely on the county for zoning, according to the ordinance: Avoca, Courtdale, Dupont, Duryea, Hughestown, Jeddo, Laflin, Larksville, Luzerne, New Columbus, Pringle, Warrior Run, West Wyoming, Wyoming and Yatesville boroughs, and Conyngham, Fairmount, Hunlock, Huntington, Lake, Newport, Ross and Union townships.

The Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. Pete G. Wilcox | Times Leader file photo

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

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