The Burrows family — parents Kristy and Dan, Hannah and her 13-year-old sister, Maggie — live in Damascus. Hannah is in kindergarten at Longview School, a school for children with severe intellectual and physical disabilities.
Last year, the family was referred to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the nonprofit that brightens the lives of kids who face health challenges. They pondered what that wish might be.
“We wanted to do something that would last a long time and she would get a lot of use out of,” Kristy said.
Weekly swimming is part of Hannah’s physical therapy at Longview, so they decided on a pool.
But building a pool in your backyard means getting a permit. And getting a permit means having a site plan, that document that shows your property, its borders, its structures and how close everything is to the neighbors.
The Burrowses didn’t have one.
Bureaucracy can often seem cold and unyielding and as Kristy went up against Montgomery County’s online permitting portal, she thought she was in for a long haul. The coronavirus had closed offices. There was no one to ask for help.
Kristy called her contact at Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic, Claire Kruse. Claire got in touch with Rebecca Jones, a permit technician with Montgomery’s Department of Permitting Services.
Rebecca could have told Claire to wait in line. She could have told Kristy to pay hundreds of dollars to commission a site plan. Instead, she consulted with her boss, Gail Lucas. They felt that what Kristy did have — an aerial photo of the immediate neighborhood — might suffice.
“We thought it contained the information we needed in order to get it approved,” Rebecca told me.
And it was.
(As it turned out, a local company — Goode Surveys — volunteered to do a site plan free. Also stepping up with discounted products or services: Well Done Electric, Van Dorn Pools, Doughboy, the pool manufacturer, and Todd Harris Co., which provided a pool lift.)
Said Kristy: “The permit was issued on the fifth [of June] and the pool was built in the next five days. . . . We went from, ‘Oh, it will be next summer’ to 15 days later there was a pool in my backyard.”
It’s an aboveground pool, 3 ½ feet deep, perfect for Hannah.
“She loves it,” said Kristy. “She’s been swimming almost every day for an hour.”
Hannah’s delighted to be in the water, of course, but her family’s noticed the pool has improved her life out of it, too.
Six-year-olds burn a lot of energy, but Hannah is non-ambulatory and can’t tire herself out through walking and running.
“She struggles with sleeping through the night,” Kristy said. But now, “She’s had a couple great nights of sleep just from the activity.”
An inspector calls
Some people delight in excoriating the zoning/permitting/inspecting process — the Deep State wants to tell me what to do! — but it’s a necessary part of living in a society and keeping citizens safe. But what happens when a pandemic threatens everyone’s safety?
Each of Montgomery County’s 15 residential inspectors typically do about 10 stops a day. That means entering 10 different homes, interacting with various builders and homeowners. It can be hard to practice social-distancing in a furnace room or crawl space.
“We were struggling like everybody to adjust,” said Jim Sackett, manager for residential inspections and code enforcement. “How are we going to provide service here and keep the inspectors safe and the workforce safe?”
The answer is virtual inspections. Inspectors still enter unoccupied structures — in new subdivisions, for example — but in occupied homes, they use smartphones. Rather than enter a home, the inspector waits outside as the contractor goes around inside holding up a phone and showing off the work — wiring, plumbing, framing, HVAC, etc. — via FaceTime or Skype.
It’s especially handy for reinspections, where the builder has a list of things he needs to fix.
Said Jim: “He can show me live those five corrections and I’ll say, ‘I’ll sign off on the approval now.’”
I wondered whether some people might try to abuse the system, by patching in video from another house or holding a photo of a correctly wired fuse box over the rat’s nest that is the actual panel.
That hasn’t been happening, said Jim.
“It’s not like approval rates have gone straight up because it’s impossible to fail a virtual inspection,” Jim said. “It still seems steady.”
Jim expects the method will stick around even after the pandemic is over.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.