Waterpark roof collapse exposes gaps in MN's building inspection enforcement

Roof collapse at Thumper Pond Resort
Damage at Thumper Pond Resort waterpark in Ottertail, Minn., was visible in this aerial view, April 15, 2015. Resort management said the incident happened just before midnight April 14. No one was hurt.
Courtesy Dave Wallis | Forum Communications Co.

Wannetta Ehnes treats her grandchildren to a waterpark getaway every spring. The toddlers splash around in the water, trying to shake off cabin fever.

But after the roof collapsed at the Thumper Pond Resort waterpark in Ottertail, Minn., last week, she's not sure she'll go back.

"I would not want to think about what if we had been there," she said. "It was scary enough that we left Sunday and this happened Tuesday night."

Thumper Pond Resort management announced the collapse on its Facebook page. It happened just before midnight on April 14, after it had closed.

A video on the Fargo Forum website showed bystander footage of water shooting out of the roof at the time of the collapse.

Nobody was hurt in the incident. But without high winds, snow or other obvious causes, it may never be known why the roof on the 10-year-old waterpark collapsed.

Many Minnesota governments outside the seven-county metro area don't enforce the State Building Code. It's the one law that requires inspections throughout a new construction process.

But just 21 of the 87 Minnesota counties enforce it, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

In the 1970s, legislators thought the state should be governed by a single code. Their proposal required all municipalities and counties to have building inspectors.

Rural parts of the state resisted and said they didn't need the code and didn't have the money to enforce it.

The Legislature then gave non-metropolitan counties the option to hold referenda. In the end, most greater Minnesota communities did not adopt the building code.

The current Minnesota State Building Code is a minimum standard licensed contractors must follow when they build new residential or commercial property.

"However, there is no enforcement in most of the territory of the state," said Scott McLellan, director of construction codes and licensing with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Enforcement of the code would assure structural stability and building safety, he added.

While licensed contractors are required to abide by the State Building Code to construct a commercial or lodging facility in a remote area, typically no building official is there to make sure it actually happens.

"There is no oversight, there is no regulation to see how it actually gets put together or to see if it even meets the design that was on the plan," McLellan said. "Even with good design, we don't know that it gets put up that way. And that's what's missing."

The state requires inspections of certain state-licensed and public buildings, including hospitals, nursing homes and correctional facilities. But those categories don't cover lodging and other businesses open to the public. McLellan said that failing should be explored in the current Legislature.

"There is generally the expectation when you visit a public place that the building is going to be safe," he said, "and you shouldn't have to worry about it collapsing on you or being a danger to you."

The Ottertail waterpark roof collapse was a dramatic, but isolated incident. McLellan said the state often learns of smaller violations, like foundation issues and minor fire code violations.

Cities and counties that don't enforce the building code argue that licensed contractors build to code anyway, and the state does plumbing, electrical and fire code inspections, so there is no need for additional enforcement.

Patrick Hynes, a lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities, said the building code amounts to an unfunded mandate on cities of small populations.

"Some of our cities are less than 100 people," he said. "We feel that if the state wants to have enforcement in every jurisdiction, then the state should fund it, because otherwise it gets put on the local taxpayers."

Mary Jo Davis is an assistant administrator with the Itasca County zoning department. The State Building Code referendum failed there back in the 1970s and there hasn't been a desire to bring it back.

"Because of the cost," she said. "If we had to do every inspection along the way of a construction project, we would have to have a whole lot of inspections.

"You'd have to either have a huge, huge office of a whole lot of building inspectors or you'd never get any projects done."

Ottertail City Clerk Elaine Hanson said it's too soon to respond to the waterpark roof collapse by discussing the possibility of adopting the State Building Code. She said the city, with a population of fewer than 600, never had a need for it.

"I don't really see it happening," she said. "We're just not that big. It's cost-prohibitive to have a building inspector."

If the roof collapse changes the minds of some other local officials, the state allows cities to opt in at any time and often sends out informational packets about the code to interested communities.

Otter Tail County Administrator Larry Krohn said that even if the county enforced the building code, it doesn't have authority over properties within city limits.

But if a dangerous incident happened in rural parts of the county, "then we might have a second look at it," he said.

That the roof collapse caused no loss of life may seem to suggest that the system is working well enough, McLellan said. "But every once in a while you get something that gives everyone a reality check," he said. "This is the kind of thing that could happen, that can happen, it's shown to happen, where the building code isn't enforced."

It's unclear how long the water park will remain closed. Staff said the area is closed off to the public as workers continue to clean up debris.

"While the loss at Thumper Pond is significant, we are very fortunate that this happened outside of our waterpark operation hours and that no one was injured," general manager Brad Stevens said in a statement. "We are working with forensic engineers to find the cause of this event; the results of the investigation will likely not be known for many weeks."

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.