WELLFLEET — Building contractor John Fitzgerald spent more than a year obtaining state Dept. of Environmental Protection and local conservation commission approvals to renovate a home surrounded by waving marsh grass at the tip of Pleasant Point in South Wellfleet.
The challenges that come with rebuilding a house in a flood zone are tough enough. But just as he was ready to go get the final building permit, Fitzgerald hit a wall. Wellfleet Building Inspector Paul Fowler resigned in the first week of July to become the building commissioner in Dennis, and for the next two months there was no one in the Wellfleet Building Dept. able to deal with the resulting logjam of permit applications.
Fitzgerald said he submitted the application to renovate 400 Pleasant Point Ave. — the home of journalist Richard Cohen and television talk show host Meredith Vieira — on July 29. He said he did not even get a call back from the building dept. until Sept. 23.
The state requires that building inspectors review permit applications within 30 days of their being submitted. But, Fitzgerald said, there is a lot of gray area there — during the Covid pandemic, especially, allowances have been made for staffing shortages and other problems.
Fitzgerald waited it out, hoping he would be able to start building by Labor Day. The job will be a big one — the great room of the existing house is built around a thick chimney that must be removed and replaced with a new support structure. Construction should take the entire winter, and Fitzgerald had to line up a crew of two full-time and two part-time builders. But as the weeks ticked by, his crew members kept calling and Fitzgerald had to keep telling them there was no work yet.
Two of the workers had been receiving unemployment benefits that were extended because of the pandemic, but those checks have now stopped and “they need to get back to work,” he said.
Fitzgerald said he has turned down four smaller jobs because he expected to start working for Cohen and Vieira, who are longtime clients. He said he worked for Cohen’s father as the caretaker at that same Pleasant Point property when he was 19 and that he is committed to seeing this project through.
“But it burns me up,” said Fitzgerald, who has been a builder in Wellfleet since the 1980s. “This is really affecting my life in a big way.”
The town finally hired Victor Staley, recently retired as Brewster’s building inspector, to process building permits temporarily starting on Sept. 7, until a new permanent inspector can be engaged.
By the time Staley started work in early September, about 35 permit applications had piled up, said Dareen Davis, the building dept.’s administrative assistant. The backlog is now down to about a dozen, said Staley on Oct. 1.
“I feel really bad,” Staley said. “There is a construction boom going on right now. And I am trying to catch up and get these contractors off the streets and back to work.”
There were six applicants for the permanent job of building inspector, said interim Town Administrator Charlie Sumner, and the town has hired Vincenzo Tirone, previously the building commissioner in Monson.
But he has no start date yet because of the vagaries of trying to relocate, Sumner said. Reached by email, Tirone declined to answer any questions at this time.
Tirone is a certified inspector — many town building inspectors have only provisional certification at first — and he has experience both as a commissioner in Monson and as a building inspector and code enforcement officer in Springfield, according to Assistant Town Administrator Rebecca Slick.
Tirone served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1999 to 2007, said Slick. His credentials include an undergraduate degree from Westfield State University in 2014. He received graduate credits for a master’s in theology and for a separate master’s in divinity from Liberty University, and master’s degree credits from Harvard University in liberal arts with a concentration in religious studies, Slick stated.
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, is still waiting for a building permit. When Staley checked out his paperwork, he found unstamped engineering plans from Felco, Inc. Fitzgerald went back to Felco to get the stamp. But the engineer who drew his plans, Varn Philbrook, is on vacation until Oct. 20.
Assuming this snafu can be fixed by another engineer, Fitzgerald will be able to get started on the Cohen-Vieira job at last. But he worries that the new building inspector won’t stay long. Fowler lasted only eight months. Justin Post, who held the Wellfleet position before Fowler, left after three years to work for the town of Eastham.
Wellfleet, like Truro and Provincetown, has had trouble retaining key staff, partly because of remoteness and the high cost of housing. Wellfleet is currently trying to hire a town administrator, a town accountant, a media coordinator, and an assistant director of the dept. of public works.