When It’s Easier to Demolish Your House Than to Make the Code Police Happy

In Palm Beach, where else:

Two new residences will be going up while five old residences will be coming down, as approved Wednesday by the Architectural Commission…264 Bahama Lane: Owner Karl Wattenhofer is demolishing his house to cure a code-enforcement violation for unapproved window changes. He currently has fines that total more than $74,000.

For me personally, this is poignant: the house is down the street from where I grew up.

Mr. Wattenhofer’s house’s back yard faces the Palm Beach Country Club, the place where Bernie Madoff made off with both the funds of a large part of the membership and the club itself.  Under U.S. law, those who choose to live next to a golf course take an assumed risk for the damage to person and property that errant golf balls inflict, so they can’t sue the club or the golfers for the damage.

Faced with this reality of American law, the Swiss Wattenhofer did a logical, defensive act: he installed bullet-proof glass in his windows. That, sad to say, fell afoul of Palm Beach’s dreaded Architectural Commission (“ARCOM”).  The police discovered this installation–then ten years old–in May 2012 when they were making a routine security check nearby, and turned him into ARCOM, which cited him and started a $250/day fine.

Wattenhofer, faced with a $50,000 retrofit and unable to see his way clear to recoup the loss in selling the house, decided to take his leave from the land of the free and the home of the brave and petitioned ARCOM to demolish the house.  ARCOM has now agreed to the demolition; his attorney can now move to have the fines reduced, destroy the house, and sell the land to someone else who can jump through ARCOM’s hoops and build anew.  (That’s expensive, but keep in mind that, in Palm Beach, generally the value of the land far exceeds what’s sitting on it).

Bahama Lane is part of the old “Dodge Estate”, which I think was the last “major” estate to be broken up on the island.  (I went to school with the son of same Dodge). The houses aren’t that old.  The whole concept of demolishing a house to satisfy the prissy sensibilities of ARCOM, especially in view of the reality Wattenhoffer was facing, is absurd.

Although I’d be the first to admit that Palm Beach is an exceptional place on the edge of these United States, the sad truth is that all of our country, in varying degrees, has saddled itself with a morass of property regulations.  Every day we hear of people fighting municipalities and associations regarding flags, political signs, basketball goals, mailboxes, Bible studies and the like.  And that’s just the start; you get into environmental disputes such as wetland designations, and things really get rough.

Mr. Wattenhofer, for his part, has had enough.  Perhaps when he’s back in Switzerland he can commiserate with Tina Turner, who gave up her U.S. citizenship to live in the land of Alps and muesli.  In the meanwhile those of us who are left behind, as we celebrate our independence with swelling patriotic rhetoric,need to cut the platitudes and conventional wisdom and ask a simple question: independence from what?

4 thoughts on “When It’s Easier to Demolish Your House Than to Make the Code Police Happy”

Leave a Reply