One year into a city of Spokane initiative to improve its interactions with businesses, the city's building and planning department has made changes to speed up the plan review process required for applicants to obtain a building permit, and now has begun to look at improving the change-of-use permitting process.
The city found that in the plan review process, the greatest frustration reported by contractors and project managers was not knowing how long it would take to get a building permit. Chris Cavanaugh, newly re-assigned as a process analyst, looked at what was happening in the building and planning department, and found that its plan reviewers were spending only about 12 percent of their time doing plan reviews.
Cavanaugh says she found that plan reviewers spent about 52 percent of their time on the phone or at the front counter answering questions unrelated to the plan review process. To fix that problem, many of those phone calls now are being routed to building inspectors, and the department has added a permit specialist trained to help most of the people coming to the front counter. The task of issuing certificates of occupancy also has been reassigned, freeing up more of the plan reviewers' time.
Cavanaugh's data show that for building projects valued at $1 million or more, in 2009 the building permit process took from 25 to 75 days. She says that she will be studying the length of time the process takes now that changes have been implemented, but that study may take awhile because the city hasn't seen many commercial projects going into plan review recently.
Matt Hoffman, a designer with Garco Construction Inc., of Spokane, has the additional responsibility of running documents to City Hall and securing permits. He says the plan review process has taken four to eight weeks for his company's projects.
"When it gets out to eight-week lengths, it causes issues with our schedule. We've told clients we're going to get started, but we can't do that without having a permit in hand. If (plan reviewers) could keep their nose in the plans all the time, that would definitely help," Hoffman says.
Cavanaugh has begun work on the city's next project: improving the change-of-use permit process.
Teri Stripes, the city's business and development coordinator, already had been working on improving that process.
"It's very complicated. The process is never the same for different types of businesses, and no one building or block will be the same as the next," says Stripes.
Another difficulty has to do with the sometimes cumbersome building and fire codes.
"A small-business owner is not a contractor. They don't know the language used in codes. We're trying to make the permit process more user-friendly, because they can't spend a lot of time learning about it, and they can't afford to pay a contractor to do it for them." Stripes says.
Stripes has been working on a pilot project in which she acts as a liaison between applicants and city departments. She explains the change-of-use permit process to applicants, and teaches them to use the city's Web site to track their application.
Most applicants don't know that they can see what's happening with their application online, see comments from various departments, and watch where the application is in the process, Stripes says.
She says that so far, the pilot project "has helped a lot of our applicants be more successful" in obtaining permits.
Another problem with getting a change-of-use permit is the difficulty of bringing a particular building up to code.
For example, someone wanting to open a restaurant in a vacant space formerly occupied by an antique shop would need a change-of-use permit, but to get that permit, they would have to bring the building up to code for use as a restaurant. The prospective new owner, for instance, might be required to spend up to $20,000 to have a fire hydrant installed on the corner of the block. If the building had an occupied apartment above the restaurant, and water service to the building was inadequate for a sprinkler system inside, the applicant would be required to replace water pipes going into the building with larger ones. That could cost another $20,000. If the restaurant wanted to offer parking in the rear of the building, and the alley and parking area weren't paved, that would be required at a cost of another $40,000 or more.
"The property owner looking to start a small business can't afford to, so the property remains vacant and for sale," Stripes says. "These are good, sound codes, but trying to meet regulations is cost prohibitive for small businesses."
The city has begun to address such hurdles to business development whenever possible, Stripes says. She cites the recent Market Street renovation as an example. During that project, the city improved water service to buildings and added fire hydrants where they were needed. Now, anyone seeking a change-of-use permit for a building within that former project area won't have to jump those hurdles.
Cavanaugh says she sent out surveys in early July asking questions about the change-of-use permitting process to people who've been through it in the past two or three years. Of the 100 surveys she sent out, she's received 25 responses, so now she's attempting to contact the other 75 to get more responses.
Beginning in September, Cavanaugh says, she will quantify the survey results and begin to analyze the permitting process, as she did earlier with the plan review process, to see what changes can be made to decrease waste or confusion.
Cavanaugh says she hopes to see some "quick fixes" in place by mid-October. With other possible changes, "We'll have to wait 'til some permits go through to see if they worked," she says. She hopes to wrap up the project by next April or May.
At that point, Stripes says, the City Council "may have to seek changes even at the state level in how the international building code and fire code are applied. What portions the state adopts mandates what we adopt. We need to see what flexibility can be found within the code."
City Councilman Jon Snyder is part of an internal review committee looking at the work Cavanaugh, Stripes, and others have done to improve city permitting processes.
"Folks new to the process who are going into business for the first time have a lot of confusion about all the regulatory processes. If we can't help those small businesses, they're not going to grow into medium or large businesses. That is so crucial for us right now in our economy. When people come in to the building and planning department, we want to give them the best possible odds of having a successful project," Snyder says.
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