Austin residents waiting up to two months for remodel permits
Jan 01, 2013 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Austin city officials say their New Year's resolutions include getting homeowners' remodeling applications reviewed in something approaching a timely fashion.
Six months after City Hall promised to move development applications more promptly through the bureaucracy, residents hoping to renovate bathrooms or build additions often must wait eight weeks or more before a reviewer looks at their plans -- a step that should take the city no more than two days, according to the municipal code.
There was a backlog of 652 applications in early December to remodel homes or build new ones, according to the most recent data available.
"I had to wait two months for the city to approve a simple bathroom remodel," said Lakshmi Jackman, owner of Transformations Remodeling, as she waited Friday at city offices to pay the fees for the project. "I've had to wait here for more than an hour just to drop off a check for a permit that has already been issued. Why can I not just pay online with a credit card, or even over the phone "
Last spring, during election season, council members promised to get the city's "one-stop shop" development-review office moving more quickly, eventually deciding to hire 14 new employees. But those new employees have been focused mainly on clearing the application backlog for new apartments, hotels and other commercial buildings, not residential applications.
Greg Guernsey, head of the city's planning and development review office, said the application paperwork is backed up mainly because six of the eight city employees who review residential permits quit last year. Meanwhile, in 2012 the office saw the same number of remodel applications and double the number of applications to build new homes compared to 2011. The backlog grew to eight weeks despite the city staff working 325 hours of overtime on permitting, Guernsey said. The six people who left the office should be replaced in January, but Guernsey said yet more employees are needed.
He's now asking the City Council for another four positions to handle residential permits, which would cost about $240,000. The council could take up the request this month.
Guernsey is also considering a few ways to relax the review process, such as giving only a cursory examination to plans filed by licensed professionals. In exchange, those professionals would agree to correct any problems that arise during subsequent inspections of the work -- even if it means tearing out the problem portions and starting over.
"To most people, the delays on the residential side are probably the ones that hit home most," Guernsey told the American-Statesman on Monday. "We realize it may be the only experience you have with the city and we'd like to make that experience as pleasant as possible, and we're making it a priority for this department."
It's not certain where the money for the new employees would come from, though the city sometimes takes on additional spending after setting its $2 billion budget each September. The long-term plan, Guernsey said, is to pay for the positions by raising the many review and inspection fees. Most of the city's development fees have not increased since the early 1990s, and in 2012 the city adopted a plan to gradually raise them until people applying for permits pay enough to cover the cost of the reviews.
Neighborhood activists and some council members had insisted that the city raise its fees before hiring more development reviewers, saying the step would help minimize the cost to longtime residents of new development.
Guernsey says the development review office needs more positions because the city's development code is complicated enough that reviewers need up to six months just to become familiar with it.
"There is a lot in there, especially in neighborhoods covered by the McMansion regulations" -- which limit the size and shape of houses in much of the city -- "and in neighborhoods with zoning overlay districts that tell you things as specific as where a garage can be placed," Guernsey said. "Sometimes it's easier building a 7-Eleven than an addition in Central Austin."
"Our ordinances stack up, so you have to check applications several different ways," said Don Birkner, one of Guernsey's deputies.
The complexity of the land-use code is an ongoing debate at City Hall. The city staff says the code should be simplified and is planning this year to start a top-to-bottom, multiyear re-evaluation. The staff promises the public and interest groups will have substantial say in the eventual rewrite of the code.
Many neighborhood activists worry development interests will pressure the city to relax the review process and wipe out hard-fought decisions -- a fear City Council Member Laura Morrison has summed up in cautioning that "one person's glitch" in the code "is another person's carefully crafted compromise."
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