City planners, BIA weigh in on pilot project

New permit review process critiqued by applicants, city

 

The Building Industry Association’s Bill Quehrn (right) and Joel Tarrida break ground on their new administration and education headquarters in Irongate after going through the city’s new pilot program for permit review.

 

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series. To see part one of this two-part series, visit www.thebellinghambusinessjournal.com/october2007/permits.php.

 

Clarity. Consistency. Predictability.

That’s what the development industry wants, and that’s what the city is attempting to give them with its new permit-review process.

In October 2007, the BBJ began a two-part series to track the first commercial building permit to pass through the city’s new permitting program. The Building Industry Association of Whatcom County had accepted an invitation to be a guinea pig for the city’s new pilot program to review building permit applications, which is being tested on several developments using green-design standards.

The new permit-review program aims to streamline the process by placing more emphasis on getting a complete application from builders from the beginning, and by offering a city project manager to oversee the entire process.

After 140 days, the BIA received its permit on Jan. 10 and broke ground on the LEED-designed project in Irongate on Jan. 18.

Meanwhile, newly elected Mayor Dan Pike has made streamlining the permit process a priority, and wants to subject all permit applications to the new system by his 100th day in office.

In this second installment of our two-part series, the BIA and the city planners involved in the project review sound off about what worked and what didn’t.

 

Clarity

Both the BIA applicants and city planners agree that the initial intake meeting is key in putting the permit process on a streamlined course.

Planner Steve Sundin, who took over as the city-appointed project manager from Darby Galligan in October, said getting complete information upfront is one of the most important elements of the new permit-review process, and it requires the development community to have knowledge of the city’s building and land-use rules and codes.

“A lot of things go wrong when we take in applications incomplete from the beginning,” he said.

But BIA officials said the city’s expectations and application criteria should be clearer. Joel Tarrida, the BIA project manager, said many in the private development sector have trouble understanding what, exactly, needs to be included in the initial permit application and that the city’s codes and regulations are too complex and difficult to interpret.

Tarrida said that from the beginning the process was disorganized and confusing.

“The preliminary meeting that gave us the guidelines was a joke,” he said. “Half the (city staff) didn’t know what they were talking about and half the (staff) was missing.”

The city routinely provides a detailed checklist for building permit applications, said senior planner Kurt Nabbefeld, who is in charge of coordinating the new permit-review process.

But Tarrida said he did not receive such a checklist, and that the city later requested more information that he said they should have asked for upfront.

Both Tarrida and Bill Quehrn, the BIA’s executive officer, suggested the city hold seminars to educate the private development community about the city’s building and land-use codes and regulations, and both Sundin and Nabbefeld thought it was a good idea. The city could even host the seminars in conjunction with the BIA at their new facility, Quehrn said.

The planners agreed that some of the land-use codes are complicated and said that in addition to providing an application checklist, the city could work on improving its pre-application process. City staff is already working to update land-use codes.

Another impediment to a streamlined permit process is the number of smaller permits required to get a building permit, including mechanical, electrical, stormwater and fire, all of which could be embedded into one building permit, Sundin said.

 

Consistency

One of the original goals of the BIA pilot permit review was to have coordinated application submittals and requests for more information.

This happened during the first few months — the BIA turned in an initial application, Sundin gathered requests for more information from the various departments and sent the BIA one letter requesting information, and then the BIA resubmitted it at the second intake meeting on Oct. 24.

But from then on, requests for more information and resubmittals became fragmented and piecemealed — a problem that both sides of the counter take credit for.

For example, during the process, the city stopped using its software that tracks and routes permits, which Sundin said was a mistake. The city also started out by giving 48-hour deadlines for departmental review of the application material and subsequent resubmittals, but staff member’s workloads and other priorities loosened those deadlines.

The BIA also encountered problems submitting information on time because one of their designers fell ill during the process.

But both planners and the BIA folks agreed having a project manager helped streamline the process.

 

Predictability

Another lesson learned from the BIA pilot permit was that permit review should be predictable.

Just before the second intake meeting on Oct. 24, several city staff discovered information that should have been included in the initial application and asked the BIA to submit it as soon as possible. This set the BIA back timewise, and Tarrida said this goes back to the fact that applicants should know from the beginning of the process what they need to submit and whether their application is lacking information

Sundin said the city recognizes they need to cut down on these instances of discovery, but it would also help if the applications included all the needed information in the beginning.

“There are times when we miss some things and we realized we missed it near the end,” he said. “It’s either a result of sloppy work, too much work, or inconsistent information submitted. We hate it when it does (happen), but we can’t just ignore those things.”

 

What’s next?

The city will use Mike Allsop’s permit application for Squalicum Lofts, an industrial project proposal on Squalicum Way, as the next pilot permit.

In addition to emphasizing application completeness from the beginning and using a city-appointed project manager, the planners will also introduce the concept of concurrent review. In this process, the city will review land-use permits and building permits at the same time, and both sides will sign a charter defining the project.

The charter states that if any changes in the building application occur due to findings from the land-use review, the applicant will pay for the additional review.

The city will also use its permit-tracking software to route the application to different departments concurrently and consistently, Nabbefeld said. And the city will attempt to ask for revisions only once during the whole process.

Nabbefeld and Sundin said they are determined to have all major permit applications go through this new process by the mayor’s 100-day mark, and they are fairly certain it can be done without the help of any new staff.

“We are working feverishly to make it happen,” Sundin said.

 

BIA permit application review timeline

 

Aug. 23, 2007 — First intake meeting. Application accepted.

Oct. 24, 2007 — Second intake meeting. City made several discoveries of more information needed from applicants, including information about wetlands, storm water, mechanical and electrical issues. The BIA agreed to resubmit that information to the city as soon as possible and the city agreed to take in the BIA’s revisions at the time. The representatives from the Fire Department did not attend meeting.

October and November, 2007 — Intake of BIA resubmittals and city requests for more information become piecemeal and fragmented at this point, partially due to the city’s failure to use its software system for permit routing, according to city planner Steve Sundin.

Nov. 15, 2007 — Application sat on both sides of the counter for equal amounts of time up until this point. After this date, time on each side was not tracked.

Jan. 10 — Permit issued 140 days from acceptance. This is less than both the average (190 days) and median (163.5 days) amount of time it took to receive a commercial building permit in Bellingham in 2006.

Jan. 18 — BIA breaks ground on its new headquarters.

 

More about the BIA’s project

The new BIA headquarters will be located at 1650 Baker Creek Place in Irongate and will include an administration office and education center twice the size of its current space on Northwest Avenue.

The 7,800-square-foot facility is designed to meet gold certification standards from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

BIA officials are currently laying the building’s foundation and hope to have it completed by the end of June.

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