Guide to Change of Occupancy in the City of Galveston

What is a Change of Occupancy?

Every building was given an occupancy classification when it was originally built. Each classification has different building code requirements that relate to the types of uses in the building and the type of construction.

A change of use or occupancy is a change in the building’s use that places the building in a different division of the same group of occupancies or in a different group of occupancies, according to the Building Code.

For example, an office building may become a day care center or a store (offices are group B, Business occupancy; a day care is group I, Institutional occupancy and a store is group M, Mercantile occupancy). Another, less obvious example of a change of occupancy, is when a restaurant that has seating for less than 50 wants to increase the number of seats to 50 or more.

A change of use is a change in the building’s use within the same occupancy group but changes the building’s occupant load or other factors that may have different building code requirements. For example, a change from a dry cleaner to a hair salon is a change within the same occupancy classification (B, or Business), but could be a change of use if the occupant load is changed.

It is important to keep in mind that the legal use or occupancy classification of the building may not be consistent with its most recent actual use. That means that a permit may be required to document the use or occupancy even if you don’t plan to make any changes to the building or plan to change how the building is currently being used. If you plan to make no changes to the use or occupancy of the building, you can request a Certificate of Zoning Compliance as evidence that the use and occupancy comply with current regulations.

A change of use or occupancy applies to the use of the building as defined by the building code but it may trigger different zoning requirements. More information about those requirements is discussed under the topic Land Development Regulations.

When is a Certificate of Occupancy Required?

Any change of use or occupancy requires a Certificate of Occupancy. A Certificate of Occupancy is required to document a change of use or occupancy classification of a building, even where no alterations are planned or required by the code. If there is no change of use or occupancy, no alterations, and the building has been vacant for less than a year, a Certificate of Zoning Compliance may be submitted for review by the Building and Planning & Development Divisions. If there is no change of use or occupancy, no alterations, and the building has been vacant for more than a year, a new Certificate of Occupancy may be required.

The time required for approval of a Certificate of Occupancy can vary, a simple change of use may go through the system in approximately four weeks.

When a Certificate of Occupancy is requested, each of the departments responsible for enforcing safety, zoning and other rules and regulations will make an inspection (such as Plumbing, Electrical, Fire, etc.).

The time involved to get a Certificate of Occupancy can vary. A simple change of use or occupancy requiring no type of waiver or appeal may go through the system in approximately four weeks for first review and one or two weeks for subsequent review of responses to comments. In other cases, where special zoning approvals are necessary or where there is complicated building history, a Certificate of Occupancy may take several months to obtain. Submittal of a clear building code summary along with responding to requests from staff for information as quickly and comprehensively as possible are the best ways to keep the process going smoothly.

The City of Galveston requires that the building code summary is prepared by a registered Architect or Engineer.

The following table provides an overview of different requirements to consider when planning for a change of use or occupancy:

Change of use or occupancy of a building Certain code requirements must be met, for example, accessibility, egress, fire, plumbing & electrical, etc.
Alterations with a value over 50% of the appraised value of the improvements (substantial rehabilitations) May require compliance with the City’s floodplain ordinance, which is intended to reduce damage from flooding.
Additions to the building Will require compliance with all building codes and the floodplain ordinance and windstorm requirements.   A structural engineer is required for windstorm resistant design and certification.
Alterations and additions to exterior May require review by Landmarks Commission in historic districts or for designated historic buildings.

Must the Project Meet Accessibility Requirements?

Residential structures are treated differently from all other structures and must comply with the Fair Housing Act. This applies to one and two family homes, apartments and condominiums. Any structure being used or converted to residential occupancy and first placed in service before March 13, 1991, is exempt from the requirements of the Fair Housing Act.

All other structures must comply with the Texas Accessibility Standards. If the change of use or occupancy involves moving a wall, changing an exit or is valued at more than $50,000 it must comply with the requirements, be registered with the state and reviewed by a Registered Accessibility Specialist both at the time the drawings are completed and again after construction is complete. Upon successful completion of the final inspection, the Registered Accessibility Specialist certifies to the state that the structure is in compliance.

When a Certificate of Occupancy is requested, each of the departments responsible for enforcing safety, zoning and other rules and regulations will make an inspection (such as Plumbing, Electrical, Fire, etc.).

The time involved to get a Certificate of Occupancy can vary. A simple change of use or occupancy requiring no type of waiver or appeal may go through the system in approximately four weeks for first review and one or two weeks for subsequent review of responses to comments. In other cases, where special zoning approvals are necessary or where there is complicated building history, a Certificate of Occupancy may take several months to obtain. Submittal of a clear building code summary along with responding to requests from staff for information as quickly and comprehensively as possible are the best ways to keep the process going smoothly.

The City of Galveston requires that the building code summary is prepared by a registered Architect or Engineer.

What are the Land Development Regulations?

Galveston’s “zoning” requirements are found in a document called the Land Development Regulations or “LDR’s”. The LDR’s spell out the allowed uses for a particular piece of property. While the building code classifications for use and occupancy address the protection of the people using the building, zoning use classifications focus on the uses of a property and its impact on surrounding properties.

The property’s location and the use of the property determine specific requirements. For example, in areas that have a parking requirement, a retail store would be required to provide more parking spaces than a warehouse.

A change of occupancy will require that the property is brought into compliance with all current Land Development Regulations including such components as signage, landscaping, parking, exterior lighting, etc.

For specific information on any property that you are considering, talk with Planning Staff in the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

Will the Project Require Inspections?

Inspections are required to change the use or occupancy, even if no alterations are required. This is necessary to confirm the building meets all requirements for the new use or occupancy classification. If there are no alterations proposed, you may request a Certificate of Occupancy. Once the structure has been inspected and approved, a new Certificate of Occupancy will be provided for your records.

If the structure is found to need repairs or alterations to comply with building code requirements, a building permit may be required before the repairs or alterations are started, depending on the extent of the repairs. After the repairs or alterations are completed, the Certificate of Occupancy can be requested again.

How do I apply for a Certificate of Occupancy?

Bring a set of plans with a building code summary, copy of the survey and elevation certificate to the Development Services Center, and the staff will review your application for completeness and guide you through the process of requesting an application for Certificate of Occupancy.

Steps to obtaining a Certificate of Occupancy

  1. Visit with planning staff at the Development Services Center to determine if the use proposed is allowed for the land use classification of the property.
  2. If the proposed use is allowed, engage an architect (or engineer) to prepare floor plans (if you do not have them) and a building code summary.
  3. If there are no alterations needed, apply for a Certificate of Occupancy. If all required inspections are passed, the Building Division will issue a Certificate of Occupancy.
  4. If alterations are needed (or the inspections reveal that alterations are required), then apply for the appropriate permits. You will need a building permit and the trades will need to secure their own permits. (Electricians, plumbers, and air conditioning contractors secure their own “trade” permits after the general building permit is approved).
  5. Upon completion of alterations apply for Certificate of Occupancy.
  6. After Building Division issues a Certificate of Occupancy, the building may be placed in service.

The Planning & Development Division or Building Division staff will advise you if there are issues that would require special applications for licenses or variances.

Do I Need a Registered Architect?

In Texas, private single-family dwellings, duplexes, farms, ranches, agricultural buildings or warehouses with limited public access generally do not require an architect. Multi-family buildings such as apartments or condominiums require an architect if over 16 units or two stories in height. Most other commercial buildings, including additions and alterations to existing buildings, require an architect.

For a change of use or occupancy, the City of Galveston requires a building code summary prepared by a registered architect or engineer.

You may find it valuable to hire an architect to help you with your plans whether or not an architect is required by law. It is important that your architect is familiar with a change of occupancy code requirements as well as the type of building or business you are considering.

Building Codes are intended to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the building occupants. Galveston has adopted the 2012 International Building Code and a number of related 2012 Codes developed by the International Code Congress.

For a complete list of Building Codes and Amendments to the Codes, visit the city website at http://www.galvestontx.gov

Is a Building Permit Required?

A building permit is required for almost anything with a cost of $500 or more, including all of the following: building a new structure, either commercial or residential; additions such as rooms, decks, porches, canopies or accessory buildings; building or modifying a deck or trellis, sign, fence, retaining wall or driveway; replacing a roof or siding, or portions of a roof or siding; and replacing an electric stove or water heater with a gas model.

Special permits are required for placing any fill on a property, depending on the location; permits may also be required from the Corps of Engineers. Anything which will temporarily block the sidewalk, parking lane, etc. with a construction dumpster, temporary fence, machinery, debris, etc. requires both a permit and a temporary license to use the Right of Way. Food establishments (new or altered) require additional permits from the Galveston County Health District and a special permit for grease traps.

For specific information on any project that you are considering, talk with Building Division Staff in the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall. Construction without a permit could result in a stop work order, fines, double or triple permit fees, or might result in a citation and action through Municipal Court.

What if I can’t meet the code requirements?

The City Ordinance adopting the Building Code Requirements provides for appeals of the building code requirements or interpretations of the building officials through the Building Board of Adjustment. When you submit an appeal, it must clearly show how your proposed alternative provides an equivalent level of fire safety, life safety, structural integrity, energy conservation or accessibility before it can be approved.

The Building Board of Adjustment meets monthly at City Hall. Applications for review by the Building Board of Adjustment can be obtained online, or at the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

What if a property can’t meet the requirements of the Land Development Regulations?

Sometimes existing buildings cannot meet parking, landscaping or other requirements of the LDR’s. State law requires the City to have an appeals board to hear such cases. In Galveston, this is the Zoning Board of Adjustment or ZBA. The ZBA meets monthly at City Hall. Applications for review by the Zoning Board of Adjustment can be obtained online, or at the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

What if the property is non-conforming or has components that extend into the City’s Right of Way?

Certain components that extend into the City’s Right of Way may be approved administratively. These items include, “A-frame” or sandwich board signs; architectural features such as awnings, cornices, and roof overhangs; canopies; construction items and safety fencing; merchandise displays; small residential encroachments such as porches and stairs on older homes; potted plants, public art and tree sculptures; residential accessibility ramps; subdivision improvements, subdivision or neighborhood identification signs; surreys; tables and chairs; and underground foundations.

Other encroachments or uses of the Right of Way must be reviewed and approved by the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission also reviews certain Plats and Re-Plats (subdividing or combining property); applications for “Beachfront Construction Certificate and Dune Protection Plan” and other items. Some requests such as the abandonment of a Right of Way; change of zoning; classification of a new or unlisted land use; specific use permit; street name change or a proposal to change the text of the LDR’s require review by the Planning Commission and also require City Council approval.

The Planning Commission meets twice a month at City Hall. Applications for review by the Planning Commission can be obtained online, or at the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

Home Based Occupations are among the oldest forms of housing. For over 100 years, Galveston has had corner stores, the model live-work unit, in which work, commerce, and housing all took place on the same property.

The building code classifies this type of occupancy as a “live/work” unit and it is in the residential occupancy group R-2, which includes other residential type occupancies as apartments, motels, and timeshares.

Can I work out of my home without changing the use or occupancy?

A Home Based Occupation is where residents use their home as a place of work. If your intention is to live in your home while operating a small business there, you will need to go through the process of obtaining a building permit, certificate of occupancy or certificate of zoning compliance to change the use or occupancy.

The building code classifies this type of occupancy as a “live/work” unit and it is in the residential occupancy group R-2, which includes other residential type occupancies as apartments, motels, and timeshares.

Building Code Requirements for Home Based Occupations:

If your home business occupies less than 10% of your home it can be permitted under the building code as an accessory occupancy within the dwelling unit. If it takes more space than that, it is a “live/work” occupancy under the building code and requires a building permit if you are altering the structure. If there are no alterations, you may apply for a certificate of occupancy. If there are alterations, a building permit is first required and a certificate of occupancy is issued after final inspection of the completed work. A certificate of occupancy is required in all cases whether the structure is being altered or not.

A live/work unit must be on the first floor and may be no larger than 3,000 s.f. or half of the area of the building; storage within the work area can be no larger than 10% of the work area. There are other building code requirements for live/work units including fire protection, ventilation, accessibility, and plumbing. For specific building code information on any property that you are considering, talk with Building Division Staff in the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

Zoning Requirements for Home Based Occupations:

In addition to the building code, the zoning regulations or LDR’s provide for home-based occupations. There are two categories of occupations described in the LDR’s which may be operated from a home: home-based occupations, which have minimal impact on a neighborhood and home based occupation/business, which has a slightly greater impact and is not allowed in most residential neighborhoods. In either case, the occupancy must comply with the applicable building code and zoning requirements.

Examples of home-based occupations might include computer programmer; virtual assistant; medical transcriptionist; translator; web designer; call center representative; tech support specialist or travel agent. To qualify as a home-based occupation, the dwelling’s residential character and appearance must not be changed; no signage or on-site advertising may be displayed, there may be no employees who do not live in the home, and no customers or clients may be received, except within the Silk Stocking and Lost Bayou neighborhoods. Home-based occupations are allowed in almost all land use classifications including residential areas.

A slightly less restrictive category of use is a home based occupation/business. This category might include businesses that receive customers or clients such a bookkeepers and seamstresses. These types of businesses are excluded from all residential areas except multi-family classifications. Uses are limited to office or service businesses and may not involve vehicle service or repair, a bed and breakfast, or any type of residential child care facility. Home based occupations/businesses may employ up to two persons who do not live on the property, may not occupy more than 50 percent of the gross floor area of the principal residential building and must meet a number of other requirements with respect to the appearance of the building, parking, on-site sales, deliveries; and they may not create a nuisance to neighboring properties.

In certain land use areas, such as the Central Business, Commercial, Light and Heavy Industrial, zoning restrictions on home based occupations are significantly less.

For specific information on any home occupation that you are considering, talk with Planning & Development Division and Building Division Staff in the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

How to contact the Planning & Development Division and Building Division:

Galveston City Hall
823 Rosenberg , Room 401
Galveston, Texas 77550

409/797-3660      http://galvestontx.gov
planningcounter@galvestontx.gov

 

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Does Development Mean Environmental Destruction?

This showed up in the Galveston County Daily News Letters To Editor.

Editor’s note: After six years, a hurricane, a nationwide housing market crash and a change of principal players, a development that long promised to bring rare, new middle-income houses to the island, Stella Mare Village just west of  7 1/2 Mile Road was officially launched.

Here is what David Dumas had to say:

Development Means Environmental Destruction

“In the Thursday’s Business section, there was a subtitle that read “West End development officially launched” “A long wait,” The Daily News, Dec. 20. It should have read, “ West End environmental destruction officially launched.”

And here is my response

Environmentally responsible development is about the delivery of a better quality of life now and for generations to come. Quality of life is a broad topic that might include affordable housing, education, employment and other things, but it is also about protection of our environment as a whole, sensitive environments such as wetlands, and energy efficient and resilient development.

Although some of my neighbors are opposed to high-density development, if we concede that the urban core has already supplanted the “natural” environment, doesn’t it make sense to develop there, rather than previously undeveloped areas? By increasing the density of development we can create a compact walkable, pedestrian friendly city.

Our biggest environmental problems are air pollution and water pollution.

Much air pollution is a direct result of burning fuel. We should do all we can to reduce emissions from burning fuel. Conserving energy is a way to start, reducing the amount of fuel burned to drive your car or cool your home.

High density development significantly reduces the energy consumption of each dwelling unit. By locating high density development in the urban core we can reduce dependence on automobiles to take us to our destinations. If Galveston’s urban core were to become truly walkable or if we had well planned public transit, such that each family could eliminate one car, the impact on the environment, as well as pocketbooks would be significant.

Water conservation is easy to implement through the use of flow restrictors on faucets and shower heads and low-flow toilets. They are mandated in new construction, but if your home doesn’t have them you should start installing them now.

As for water pollution, the construction of the new sewage treatment facility for the City of Galveston is a step in the right direction. It will reduce the amount of pollutants discharged into the environment from our city.

As individuals, we can find ways to reduce pollutants in the storm water run-off.  The top ten list of steps you can take to reduce storm water pollution:

1.    Maintain cars and trucks. Never dump anything down a storm drain. Always recycle used oil, antifreeze and other fluids. Fix oil leaks.

2.   Wash cars, trucks and equipment at a commercial car wash rather than in the street or in the driveway. If you wash a car at home, wash it on the lawn.

3.   Drive less. Leave the car at home at least one day each week and take a bus, carpool or bike to work. Combine errands. Get vehicle emissions checked and repaired. Buy a low emission vehicle.

4.   Cut down on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. If used, follow directions and use them sparingly. Don’t fertilize before a rainstorm. Consider using organic fertilizers. Let lawns go brown in the summer months; they will rebound in the fall. Compost or mulch lawn clippings. Preserve existing trees or plant new ones – trees hold rainfall and help manage storm water.

5.   Replace part of your lawn with native, drought-resistant plants. Add compost to planting soil and dress it with mulch to improve plant growth and reduce storm water runoff.

6.   If you are on a septic system, maintain the system. Septic systems require regular inspections, maintenance and pumping, or they will fail, cost a lot of money to fix and pollute the environment. Have a professional inspector check your septic system regularly and have it pumped out when needed.

7.   Pick up after pets. Scoop your dog’s poop and properly dispose of it. Compost manure in a designated area so that it doesn’t wash off into nearby waters.

8.   Reduce impervious surfaces at home and increase the vegetated land cover of your property. Impervious surfaces include the roof, driveway, patios and lawn. Reduce rooftop runoff by directing downspouts to vegetated areas, and not to the storm drain or street. For new driveways and patios, consider putting in permeable paving or patterns of concrete or brick that allow water to filter through.

9.   Support Galveston’s storm water program. Galveston needs to make a serious investment to maintain it’s storm water system, to help prevent flooding and help protect natural resources. Long overlooked, these needed repairs may cost money in the short run but save money for damages to public and private property in the long term.

10.   You’ve already made at least one smart growth choice: choosing to live in Galveston, a compact island community with easy access to shopping, schools, and work. Instead of commuting from the suburbs of Cinco Ranch to downtown Houston, your daily commute is how far?

We owe it to future generations to act responsibly now and preserve the environment through the sound policies on conservation, waste reduction and recycling, total water management and greening. These policies need to identify places to be developed as well as places to remain undeveloped.

One of the world’s greatest environmentally responsible developments is The Woodlands.  Designed by Ian McHarg, who wrote the influential book Design with Nature, and developed by George and Cynthia Mitchell, The Woodlands was designed to work with, rather than against the environment, and is a model for future development to follow.

Ian McHarg

In the end, individuals, business leaders and the various governing bodies need to recognize that they are stakeholders and partners in the protection and improvement of our environment. It is incumbent upon all to cooperate, collaborate, and work together to make the choices and set the policies that will serve us now and in future generations.

Welcome

I’m not much of a writer, being an Architect, I think it must come from the wrong side of my brain or something.  But I’m going to give it a go and see where it leads. Maybe this will be an outlet that keeps me sane when there is so much craziness around me.

Who knows where this blog will go – certainly not me.

But if you want to go back to my company web page, click here

Building Codes and the Nanny State

Building codes are getting ridiculous. The people who write, or perhaps more correctly edit, the codes every three years have gone over the edge.

In the 1980’s the building code we used in Galveston was a rather small three ring binder.  Seems like it was about 200 or so pages printed on both sides.

Today the library of International Codes fills an entire bookshelf.

Everything from how many air changes per hour there will be in a Nail Salon to tamperproof, arc fault protected electrical outlets is specified.  The Code Council keeps pushing for fire sprinklers in every building.  In Texas, the legislature pushed back by prohibiting cities and counties from requiring them in residential construction. Fire sprinklers are not the last word in protecting property from damage.  I was visiting with a contractor engaged in a big fire damage job – the fire did about $200,000 in direct damage.  Water from the sprinklers added another several million dollars to the repair bill.

The changes made every three years are so numerous and cumbersome that the construction industry hasn’t adjusted to the 2009 code when the 2012 code is published.

Three years is too short a cycle. And every tragedy reported in the newspapers does not need to have a response embodied in the building codes. Most of the tragedies reported are the result of cumulative failures including lack of inspections during construction and after occupancy, numerous violations of the fire codes while the building is occupied, impeded exits and the number of occupants exceeding that which the building was designed to accommodate. Alcohol impaired occupants often figure prominently in these tragedies. There should be some relationship between the societal cost of accidents and the cost of prevention. Accidents will happen.  Some will be tragic.  Should the entire industry change the way we build things? Not necessarily.

Of course, one has to believe that it is also about selling the books and bolstering the bottom line of the International Code Council.

All the changes in the Code do not become apparent until the books have been published, the officials have been trained, and all the seminars attended.  By then, the next round of changes is underway.  At the very least the Council should publish the book describing important changes to the Code long before, and not after, the Code becomes available for adoption.

Any state or local agency that requires compliance with the “most recent edition” should change their enabling legislation and adopt a certain edition. Laziness on the part of regulators is not a good thing.  If a new code is going to be adopted, it should be an affirmative act based on an evaluation of the new code, not a default automatic adoption.

The people who write (edit) the codes need to slow way down, make fewer, more meaningful changes, stop burying requirements in the wrong chapters and be less reactive to isolated events.  Yes, we want safer buildings and the building codes should lead the way – but don’t cripple the construction industry in the process.

The Problem With Palapas

Palapas are those thatch roofed huts that look so great on a tropical island like Galveston.  With a roof made out of palm branches lashed to a wooden frame, they are resistant to windstorms, shed water, rustle ever so softly in the breeze and just generally send us into an immediate state of vacation bliss. And the palapa sales team has hit Galveston in full force.

Up and down the Seawall, at hotels and pools and backyards across the Island, palapas are popping up like so many mushrooms after last month’s monsoon rains.

So what’s the problem? Well, every now and then one of these palapas catches on fire. If not properly treated with flame retardant they burst into flame like a grass fire after a drought.  Should you be unlucky enough to be under one or nearby, the consequences could be tragic if not downright deadly.

Safety regulations require that roof materials meet certain requirements with respect to flammability.  To ensure that the requirements are met, the materials have to be tested and evaluated. Manufacturers of roofing materials send their products to special laboratories to have this work done.  Only palm leaves are not manufactured and there are no tests to determine if a palm leaf, treated with a fire retardant, will meet the minimum requirements for safety.

The sales person will tell you that the leaves are treated with a spray on fire retardant. But how can you be sure that what is coming out of the sprayer is a retardant and not just water?  Fire retardants have to be re-applied to the palm leaves regularly to maintain effectiveness.

What about restaurants and bars?  These types of establishments are required to meet many safety regulations from the number and size of exits required to the type of alarm systems.  Larger ones are required to have fire sprinklers.  Wouldn’t they be safe? Generally, no.  Fire sprinklers spray water, which gravity will pull down to the ground, it is nearly impossible to protect a flammable roof with sprinklers. And fire sprinklers are set off by heat, which rises.  Sprinklers under a fire may not get hot enough to discharge before the fire gets too big. Putting a hundred or so folks under a highly flammable roof just isn’t a good idea. Open flame tiki torches marking the entrance is an even worse idea.

So should palapas be allowed, and if so, under what conditions?

I’ll preface this by saying that I love palapas and one of my favorite vacation spots features a large restaurant under a beautiful palapa.

The conditions which would make a commercial palapa less dangerous are these:

  • The occupancy under the palapa roof is limited to no more than 100 persons
  • The number and size of required exits are doubled
  • No open flames under the palapa or within 25 feet
  • No other buildings within 40 feet

Backyard palapas should either be made from synthetic materials (manufactured to be flame retardant) or kept 25 feet or more from any nearby structure.  Putting your charcoal or gas grille underneath is not a good idea.

Officials having jurisdiction over construction need to work with the community to find ways to incorporate palapas into our Island architecture – but they must ensure that safety  is not compromised.  A tough challenge indeed. And the palapa that catches fire may ignite its neighbors as well.

So if you find yourself enjoying a meal or beverage in a tropical breeze under the palm thatched roof of a palapa, just remember to sit near the exit.