“A lot of the ... complaints that we get are because a person does not understand either the requirements or the process,” Plan Review and Permitting Director Jennifer Smith said last week during a tour of the division’s 80 W. Baltimore St. headquarters.
As a step toward improving that understanding, the division held a weeklong open house last week and invited residents to submit questions for an “Ask the Expert” session on Facebook. But when it comes to educating the public about plan review, there is much to cover.
“There’s an enormous amount of laws and regulations that we have to enforce,” Smith said, ticking off a list: the International Building Code, the International Residential Code, the plumbing code, the electrical code, the energy conservation code, the mechanical code, the accessibility code, the subdivision ordinance, the stormwater, grading and sediment control ordinance, the excise tax ordinance and more.
“Some of those codes ... they’re this thick,” Smith said, stretching her fingers apart. “They’re stacks of pages and pages of very technical requirements, so it’s a very difficult job.”
Before a county restructuring implemented in March, responsibility for enforcing those codes and ordinances was divided between multiple departments. At the plan review phase, the Permits and Inspections Department and the Planning Department were involved. Then, at the inspection phase, some inspections were performed by Permits and Inspections, while others were the responsibility of Capital Projects Engineering within the Division of Public Works.
“All the way through the process, it was straddling different departments,” said Deputy Director of Public Works Robert J. Slocum.
Today, all plan review and permitting functions are handled by the new Division of Plan Review and Permitting — headed by Smith — while all inspections are handled by Slocum’s Engineering and Construction section of the Division of Public Works.
Improving the flow of information
With all plan review and permitting functions under the same umbrella, the new division has been working to improve communication and reduce duplication, Smith said.
For example, Smith said, the division has standardized the formats for providing comments, as well as the nomenclature used within Permits Plus, the software used to track each project through required steps. The division has also increased the amount of automation within that system, she said.
Meanwhile, Engineering and Construction has been cross-training inspectors and is working to get all inspectors using notebook computers in the field, Slocum said.
Residents and contractors can track their projects through the process, schedule inspections and view inspection results online through Citizen Access at www.velocityhall.com/washingtoncounty, Slocum said.
Plan Review and Permitting also consolidated its fees into one system so they are easier to calculate, and introduced the option to pay by credit card, Smith said.
Improving the speed and convenience of plan review and permitting has been championed by county commissioners in recent years as a way to encourage construction that would boost the local economy.
“There’s competition from surrounding states and jurisdictions, and we want to make Washington County be a good business climate and be a good place to live and have your business,” Slocum said.
Smith said the division has not measured whether projects are receiving approvals faster since the restructuring.
Taylor Oliver, president of Oliver Homes, said he has noticed reviews going faster and reviewers seeming to have more time to devote to each review, but he attributed the difference to less construction activity.
“There’s just not a lot of things going on, and as a result, it probably is moving along more quickly,” Oliver said.