RisherMartin Talks to the ABJ

Recently, the excessive delays in permitting have garnered a lot of attention for the City of Austin and Austin City Council.  The Austin Business Journal spoke with RisherMartin’s Jeremy Martin and Kathey Comer, Executive Officer of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, on the repercussions of these delays and how they are affecting Austin’s home building industry.

Unclogging Austin City Hall

It takes too long to get a building permit, so here’s what’s being done about it

Permit reviewers at One Texas Center are overloaded with paperwork. There were more than 600 permits waiting to be reviewed at last count. Even simple renovations must wait months.

Staff Writer-Austin Business Journal
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Austin’s Planning and Development Review Department is slowly beginning to make headway on the backlog of residential permit applications that has created months-long delays for renovations and new homes for the past year.

To help clear permits, the City Council has authorized $188,000 for four new review positions. On top of that, six posts left vacant after staff left the department last year have been filled. But it’ll likely take months for the new hires to be brought up to speed, so permit filers — whether they be big development firms or a homeowner seeking a larger bathroom — shouldn’t expect speedier reviews anytime soon.

Some fear the situation has the potential to scare off new development and economic progress. Professionals of all types report being hindered. Realtors, for instance, are held back by a lack of product to sell. Meanwhile, existing homes that need some remodeling can be a tough sell because buyers are aware that it could be several months before they can get the city’s OK to rehabilitate them.

“The customers want us to go to work, we want to go to work, the architects have done their work, and we’re just all sitting around,” said Jeremy Martin, who owns contractor RisherMartin Fine Homes.

One kitchen-and-bath remodel he’s working on will spend more time waiting for a permit than in construction, he said.

Don Birkner, who heads residential permit review at the city of Austin, said his team is aware of the problem.

“We’re literally doing everything we know how to do,” he said.

His department of eight reviewers lost six people in 2012. The usual turnover is two people.

Since then, the city has refilled those positions, but it can take up to a year before reviewers become fully versed in the city’s complex land use code, Birkner said.

The backlog of residential permits shrank slightly from 625 permits on Jan. 2 to 619 permits on Feb. 6, according to city records.

Reinforcements on the way, more needed

Adding four more positions with the new funds from the recently discovered budget surplus will help shrink the backlogs further, Birkner said. But hiring for those positions could take 30 to 60 days, and then the new hires will have to be trained, he said.

To help in the meantime, the city began allowing remodel plans that don’t involve increasing square footage — provided that they’re submitted by licensed designers — to be approved without a detailed review. Similar applications for enlarging houses, called McMansion reviews, can be approved after a shortened review process under a certification program or a disclaimer.

Besides those changes, the review department needs some basic shifts to make it more efficient, Birkner said.

At the top of the list is an electronic system to manage permit submittals, fee payment and status updates. The city has been working with its current software for about six years, Birkner said.

“Right now, if folks could look on a computer and see where they are on a waiting list instead of calling my people, that would save a lot of time in the day,” he said.

Austin’s planning department expects to upgrade its permit system to allow for online payment and submissions by the end of this year. It’s also going to finalize plans to switch to electronic reviews this March.

The city of Georgetown has used an online system for some building permit reviews for about a year.

“We think it’s sped things up quite a bit,” said Dave Hall, Georgetown’s building official. “Paperless is one thing we really like because we’re not having to send everything down to record retention.”

Georgetown’s system enables permits to be submitted online and reviewed electronically. The technology costs a couple of thousand of dollars each month, Hall said, and is paid for by a technology fee attached to permits. That fee has raised about $27,000 since it’s been in place.

While it took time to train people on the new technology, Hall said, moving online has helped Georgetown to clear permits in about four to five days.

Kathy Comer, vice president at the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, said Georgetown’s move online was a win for the city, residents and builders.

Comer also called for a moratorium on new building regulations to help speed the review process. New regulations have added to the complexity of the code and slowed reviews, she said.

“This is one of the most serious situations we’ve seen in Austin,” she said. “It has stymied the homebuilding industry.”