County to clamp down on use
of ‘standalone’ structures
By James Tilson
Oct. 19, 2017
MANTI—Shipping containers, prefabricated storage sheds and barns are a common sight as one travels throughout Sanpete County.
But what isn’t commonly known is that such structures have reportedly been used as makeshift residences.
The practice is being reviewed—and clamped down on—by Sanpete County officials.
Sanpete County Zoning Administrator Scott Olsen says it is “an issue that has been around since housing ordinances were created,” that people use what are ostensibly storage structures for residential purposes instead.
Why are people doing this? To get around building-permit requirements.
How is it legal? It’s through a loophole in Utah law that says a structure intended for “agricultural use” may be exempt from building-permit requirements. Since so much of the land in Sanpete County is agricultural, people can argue that a building—even one with people, particularly farm workers, living in it— is being used for agricultural purposes. They hope in this way to escape building-permit requirements and, more to the point, permit fees.
Sanpete County Commissioner Scott Bartholomew says the agricultural building exception is “way over-used” as a way for people to get away from permitting. Bartholomew says the practice has always bothered him because of its impacts on safety and public health, especially as concern water and sewer.
Linda Christiansen, permit technician at the Sanpete County Building Department, says the primary problem for most people is “miseducation.” She says that most of the time, people will call her department wanting to find a way to build a structure in way that doesn’t fit zoning or other regulations. Christiansen says people latch onto the agricultural exemption because then it does away with requirements for a permit, for water or for a house proper.
But when they call in, Christiansen says she has to tell them that storing a fifth-wheel trailer in a barn is not an agricultural use. Neither is using a storage shed, a container, or a mobile office for a part-time cabin on a recreational lot on the mountain.
In response, Olsen has proposed a number of new ordinances to fill in some of the loopholes and clear up some vagaries in laws. Mostly, the proposed ordinances are aimed at defining some terms that have not been defined in the past.
For example, in October the Sanpete County Commission will hold a public hearing on ordinances to define “farm dwelling” and “standalone structure.” Both ordinances define more precisely what these types of structures are so Olsen can appropriately determine whether a building in question complies.
In the past, neither structure was well-defined, and Olsen was stuck not being able to do anything when people claimed their structure fell into one of those categories.
Olsen hopes the new ordinances will help, especially when it comes to the permitting process on the front end. Trying to enforce the building ordinance after the fact, Olsen says, is tough.
As the county’s zoning administrator, “The zoning staff is me,” Olsen says. That means he is busy guiding zone-change and subdivision applications at the same time that he is trying to enforce ordinances on things that may have attempted to circumvent any regulation, even though he himself does not have the authority to issue citations. Intimately aware of the county’s building codes, he can only make people aware of violations. Only the county attorney has the authority to issue citations, Olsen says, and that happens only rarely.
Sanpete County Commission Chair Claudia Jarrett says that “enforcement will always be an issue, no matter how many people work on it.”
The size of the county and the predominantly agricultural nature of the land lends to these types of problems, Jarrett says. However, she is hopeful that setting up better ordinances at the front end will help the county catch such problems in advance, before they actually become problems.