Freewheeling permit-issuing abounds in Texas; legislative fix in the works

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Building inspection

In the weeks leading up to the January opening of the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land, the city scheduled one of its last inspections: a walk-through to ensure the $100 million performance venue was up to the accessibility codes of Texas.

In a report dated Dec. 21, American Construction Investigations found 33 violations, including improper handrail length, a lack of disabled access in several restrooms, numerous instances of inadequate dimensions of passageways.

The figure sounds like a heavy load of work to get done in a short time — comedian Jerry Seinfeld was scheduled for the opening on January 17.

The number of violations is not out of the ordinary for large project like the 6,400-seat venue.

The Sugar Land event center was able to get a temporary occupancy license and on Feb 28, the city issued a permanent certificate.

To remedy violations, a venue must assert it has addressed the problems in a letter to the inspection company.

Jeromy Murphy, the inspector for American Construction said he received a letter on Thursday that all 33 violations have been fixed.

But here’s the twist. The venue will not be re-inspected with regard to the fixes. American Construction will  issue a note to the state licensing division noting that the venue is in compliance.

Documents confirming this were obtained by Yvonne Larsen, a local resident and blogger.

As Jerry Seinfeld might say, “Whaaaat’s the deal with state law that does not require deficiencies to be remedied before opening?”

Indeed, a municipality or business owner gets 90 business days after being notified to fix things, then can extend that for up to 270 days. An occupancy permit is not linked to the accessibility of a building.

In Fort Bend County, where Sugar Land sits, there have been 21 citations regarding accessibility issues since 2014, according to the state’s database.

All of them stem from a failure by the business to contact an accessibility inspector for a  review.

Under a measure authored by state Rep. Drew Springer R-Muenster, things would be different.  His bill requires businesses to be free of accessibility violations before it can receive an occupancy license.

“And if a certificate is issued to a place that is not in compliance, the city is held responsible,” Springer said in an interview.

Sugar Land’s Smart Financial Centre, as well as many other already up-and-running businesses, would not be impacted since the proposed legislation would not affect business buildings that have already received their occupancy permits.

The bill was drafted after Springer and his wife, who has been in a wheelchair for 28 years,  visited a restaurant in Duncanville and found the bathroom door was too narrow for a chair.

“And yet the city issued a permanent certificate of occupancy,” he said.

The national Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, and Texas followed with its own Architectural Barriers Act in 1994.

While Springer contends that some places are getting off too easy Murphy feels that the oversight is stringent enough.

“It’s a level of oversight that I think is appropriate for these types of issues,” Murphy said. “Providing more would make it more expensive and onerous.”

Springer contends that he has been to numerous eateries around the state that have been licensed by the local municipality despite being far out of compliance.

“We’ll see restaurants in Houston, Dallas out of compliance,” Springer said. A five-star steakhouse in Fort Worth, he noted, has been certified for years but is off-limits to the Springers for its lack of access.

“The business isn’t always the bad guy in this,” he said. “They trust the city their builders, the architect to say they are all ready to go.”

His legislation has been assigned to committee and Springer fears for the bill’s survival, in part because of lobbying efforts from the powerful Texas Municipal League.

The Texas Monitor has reached out to the TML for comment this morning and will update this story when we hear back.

“TML is a lobbying powerhouse and will present this as a bad idea that will drive up costs for a city,” Springer said. “But almost all of our constituents are affected by this and anybody can become a member of the disabled community.”

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or at [email protected]

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