After previous attempts failed, developers are still skeptical
Time is money.
Developers and business owners know this maxim all too well, which is why the fever pitch of complaints regarding the city of Bellingham’s building permit review process seems to always run high.
Both the city and the Small Business Development Center have recently released studies showing dissatisfaction with the process, and it’s almost uncommon to discuss a developer’s plans for a project without the requisite complaint about the permit review system.
Bill Quehrn, executive officer of the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County, gives this hypothetical situation: A developer goes to get a loan from a banker. The loan has a time period. If the developer can’t get their project out of permitting before their construction loan runs out, they have just lost a ton of money. The developer possibly had contractors scheduled to do the work, such as foundation diggers, dry wallers, electricians, plumbers and painters, who may charge the developer a penalty for delaying construction, or the developer may lose them completely for the season. It’s also means more time the developer sits on an expensive piece of dirt without generating revenue from it.
It’s a scenario many business people in Bellingham likely identify with if they’ve ever tried to build something, and a situation the city is not unsympathetic to.
This fall, the planning and community development department is experimenting with a new pilot program to review building permit applications in the hopes of making the process more efficient and less time consuming, and the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County has agreed to be the guinea pig.
However, the BIA applicants remain skeptical that the new review process will truly improve the system.
Both Quehrn and the BIA’s treasurer and project manager, Joel Tarrida, think the system’s major problems lie in city codes and regulations, which they say result in unnecessary and wasteful review.
“It’s like peeling an onion. Those layers of ordinances, rules and regulations that are in everything make it incredibly difficult for them to render any kind of decision in a swift manner,” Quehrn said.
While he thinks the pilot program is a noble effort, he said he fears it will simply raise expectations for developers without delivering.
“If you’ve got a car with a bad engine, and the brakes don’t work, it doesn’t matter what color you paint it — and that’s kind of where this is for the folks at City Hall,” he said. “Regardless of how good their intentions are, they’re going to be hitting a wall every time they try to help somebody.”
Both are weary of the city’s announced plans to revise the building codes over the next few years, saying previous planning directors promised the same thing to no avail.
This is the first of a two-part series that examines the new system from beginning to end, from both sides of the counter, focusing specifically on new commercial building permits.
Revamping the system
The impetus for revamping the city’s building permit review process came from planning and community development director Tim Stewart after a city survey found dissatisfaction with the system.
He charged senior planner Kurt Nabbefeld with taking the lead on the pilot program, which will initially use projects on track for LEED and Built Green certification as test subjects. The idea is that the pilot program — in the expectation it will be more efficient — will act as an incentive for green building.
The BIA’s project, a new 7,800-square-foot headquarters in the Irongate area that will be LEED-gold and Built Green-certified, was chosen as the first commercial project to go through the new review process, which Nabbefeld said is highly experimental at this point. (For more information on the BIA project’s design, see the buzz item on page A4).
The idea is that all permits, not just green-built ones, will eventually go through this streamlined process, Stewart said.
Nabbefeld said the city’s relatively new permit center, which has been in place since August 2004, was supposed to have increased efficiency, but he doesn’t think it went far enough. He also said he thinks the city needs to rebuild its trust with developers, not just with neighborhoods, through a better review system.
“I think over the years there’s been this idea that there’s been a breakdown in the trust level, that the neighborhoods don’t trust the city to do the right thing. I think Tim has done a great job in rebuilding that trust,” he said. “My idea is that trust isn’t just between staff and the neighborhoods, trust is between staff and the development community and the neighborhoods. So we’ve done better on the neighborhood-city staff area — we need to do better on the development community now as well.”
Nabbefeld calls this nexus between city staff, neighborhoods, and developers a “triangle of trust.”
An inefficient process
The city’s current permit review method works like this: The applicant must first go through land-use enablement, which includes applying for permits such as planned contracts, sub-divisions and critical areas and SEPA permits. Applicants sometimes are required to have a pre-application meeting for certain types of permits before this stage, and all applicants are able to pay for an optional pre-application meeting.
The next level is infrastructure review, if it is needed. This includes review of things like streets, sewer and water pipes.
Once land-use and infrastructure review are complete, the applicant submits a building permit at the permit center, where a staff person does an initial screening of the application. Then various necessary departments (such as public works, planning, fire and building services) check the application for completeness.
Once the application is determined to be complete by each department, it is officially “accepted,” and the application receives a number in a line on each department’s to-do list for review.
During review, the departments may find they need more information or corrections to the application, and then individually, and often at different times, send requests for corrections or more information to the applicant. Sometimes those requests affect different departments’ requirements for review.
“So we get in this back and forth, and that’s really not very efficient,” Nabbefeld said of the process.
The major problems, according to planners, include a lax intake policy, a lack of coordination and efficiency between departments resulting in a piecemeal process, and a lack of clarity for the applicant.
The pilot program will address those inefficiencies with a few new elements.
First, the applicant will have an initial intake appointment/completeness review with the emphasis on getting more detailed permit applications from the start. This may result in turning an applicant away several times before accepting the permit application.
That is not to say that the departments won’t ask for some further information later on during their reviews, he said.
Tarrida said the half-hour intake meeting with public works, planning and building services went well.
The second, most important element of the pilot program is that a single project manager acts as the liaison between the applicant and the departments. The idea is that ultimately the project manager would be the applicant’s point person through all levels of review, including land-use, infrastructure and building-permit review.
In the new process, the project manager gathers the various departments’ requests for more information after their reviews and sends those requests to the applicant in one letter. This remedies the chaotic and confusing piecemeal fashion of individual departments requesting different information at different times.
Then the project manager will intake the applicant’s corrections all at once, possibly during a second intake meeting with all of the departments present.
“The goal is to have submittal from the applicant’s various parties all at once. That way we don’t get different plans from architects and structural engineers,” Nabbefeld said.
The city-appointed project manager of the BIA permit, Darby Galligan, said that so far, the process has worked out well, and she thinks it will eventually cut down on the time it takes to issue a permit.
“It’s inevitably going to cut down on time because it cuts down on the back and forth,” she said.
It’s also less confusing for applicants because they know to contact their project manager with any questions, she said.
Both Tarrida and Quehrn like the idea of a city-assigned project manager, but have reservations about the effectiveness of using one for all permit reviews.
“The problem is, when they get busy, how many applications can the project manager be responsible for?” Tarrida said.
Initially, project managers will be planners because the planning department is taking the lead on the pilot program, and because planners are the originators of land-use review, Nabbefeld said
However, there is concern from both sides about whether this additional workload for planners is feasible, especially when the planning department is already busy with urban growth area processes, updating codes and neighborhood plans.
“I think if you just look at the sheer amount of planning work out there, and our capacity right now, and the staffing levels we have, something’s got to happen,” Nabbefeld said.
Although Stewart said in a July interview with the BBJ that the department was looking at adding more staff, he said this month that it’s not in the cards for next year.
“We don’t anticipate adding more staff next year. We hope to utilize our staff we have now,” he said. “There have been discussions about enhancing staff, but that gets down to a question of balancing resources and how.”
The city is also considering doing simultaneous reviews of the land-use, infrastructure and building permit components, which would potentially further cut down on the permit turnaround time. The idea would be to combine, when possible, either the first two levels, the last two, or all three, although the land-use component typically needs to come first, Nabbefeld said.
“We have the ability to reduce that three-step process into at least two,” he said.
One challenge Nabbefeld sees with implementing this new process is trying to be the nice guy when it comes to accepting a permit.
“There comes that point where, okay we’ve kicked out this application three times, when do we break down and say, ‘All right, come on in’? I think that’s going to be hard for us. We’re trying to provide good customer service, but we also need to make sure we’ve got the level of detail we need.”
Establishing the new system with other departments that already have their systems down will also be a challenge, he said.
Galligan said the workload for planners is another potential hurdle.
Quehrn and Tarrida both said they think streamlining the permit review system may result in some improvement, but they think the roots of the system’s inefficiencies lie much deeper, and that ultimately the city needs deregulation.
For Quehrn and Tarrida, the jury is still out on the pilot program. At the time this story was written, it had taken about four weeks from when their permit was accepted for Galligan to send them a letter requesting corrections for the project.
“The intent is there,” Tarrida said. “But we don’t know if the system works — it’s still too early.”
Stay tuned in the next couple of months for the second installment of this story, which will detail the next steps of the BIA’s permit review, as well as feedback on the process from those involved. It will also look at how commercial alteration and tenant improvement permits are processed.
Bellingham’s permit review process compared to other cities
The above table shows the average and median amount of time it took to get a commercial building permit, excluding commercial alterations, from four medium-sized cities in Washington in 2006. The data is based on a number of public records requested by the BBJ from the various cities.
This data, while fairly comparable, is not an “apples to apples” comparison because of the differing ways each city processes permits and records them. For example, the city of Bellingham tracks permit turnaround from when a permit application is received, which can happen before it is technically accepted, whereas Spokane’s data is tracked about 95 percent of the time from when the permit was accepted, not received. Everett has no distinction between received and accepted, and Yakima’s permits are tracked from when they were accepted.
Also, the permits used for Bellingham and Spokane were from distinct categories of commercial permits, including mixed-use, new industrial, new offices/banks/professional buildings and new stores/customer service buildings, whereas neither Yakima nor Everett tracks such specific commercial categories.
What other city’s have done to improve their permit processes
In Everett, an applicant goes through infrastructure and building permit review simultaneously, said Kirk Brooks, building official for the city of Everett.
Everett also has three staff technicians, similar to project managers, that act as a liaison between applicants and the city.
In last two years, Everett has started using a computer program for coordinating land-use and building permit review between departments.
The city has hired new staff but also has many experienced employees.
Brooks said these changes haven’t necessarily resulted in getting permits out faster in Everett, but have rather reflected a need to compensate for more work coming in.
In Spokane, an applicant is encouraged to schedule a predevelopment meeting a few months before they want a permit issued. In this meeting, the applicant submits plans for review by various departments, which identify key issues, including land use and infrastructure.
While the city does not have a project manager for each permit, it does have an ombudsman for applicants whose permits get held up or are encountering difficulties.
Brian Jennings has held the position of building department ombudsman since it was created 18 months ago to address and resolve applicants’ process issues.
He said that in the last year, Spokane has also created an official advisory board of 10 to 12 members, made up of developers, contractors, real estate agents, property managers, a banker and a transportation specialist to advise the city on practices and ideas for permit review.
The city of Yakima has a money-back guarantee for permit applicants. The city tries to have commercial permits issued within eight weeks of application.
“If we don’t meet that deadline, we reimburse people the plan-review fee,” said Doug Maples, code administration and planning manager.
Yakima uses one project manager who handles all the projects and coordinates the plans for all the city departments, he said.