The relationship between government officials and members of the valley's building industry isn't tension free. But the lines of communication are as open as they've been at any time in the past decade, they say. And determined efforts are under way to streamline the process of completing new buildings here.
Years ago, the construction industry formed a users board to work with the Routt County Regional Building Department, contractor Tom Fox said. Now, there is an effort to broaden that initiative.
"Now, it seems like we've expanded it to cover wherever the industry and government meet in order to work out problems," Fox said. "We're looking for better ways to do things."
Fox, who is the principal of Fox Construction Inc., sits on the board of directors of the long-standing Yampa Valley Construction Trades Association. The association has new energy, Fox said, and is meeting monthly. Its intent is to work with city and county government officials to meet issues head-on. Board members want to have a role in the process of choosing a new chief building department official and talk to city officials about needed updates to the community development code.
Deputy City Manager Wendy DuBord said the city welcomes the initiative.
"It used to be reactive," DuBord said. "We're trying to be proactive. We're trying to look at problems and ask, 'Are they pervasive?'"
In addition, the association is reaching out to the public with establishment of a Web site at yampavalley.info, and a telephone hotline. The hotline, at 879-2649, is meant to allow members of the public to anonymously seek help with planning and construction issues.
Quickening the process
As the amount of construction in the valley has increased, Fox said, the pressure between the construction industry and government has built as both work overtime to meet the demand.
"It's gotten more and more difficult to get through the process," Fox said.
"We see people being frustrated," Acting Chief Building Official Carl Dunham said.
The construction boom in the valley is a challenge for government officials and contractors alike. Dunham's office received 51 applications and issued 18 building permits last week alone. That event was an anomaly -- developers and individuals with pre-existing development permits were hustling to beat a deadline today imposed to avoid new requirements under the latest update the city development code. However, the recent surge in building permit activity illustrates the challenges government officials can face.
City Manager Paul Hughes concurred. He said the city hired an assistant city engineer during the huge construction boom of the late 1990s. When that boom died down in 2001 and the engineer left the position, the city did not fill it. Now, city officials wish they had the engineer in place again. Hiring to meet the fluctuating economy is difficult, Hughes added.
Dunham said the building department has been able to cut the waiting time for city building permits from 10 weeks to three weeks in most cases. That has been achieved by eliminating the need for separate foundation permits and making the change to a concurrent review process of building plans by the city and county.
Association board member Mark Halvorson of Snow Country Construction said he is waiting for various government departments to sign off on 18 sets of building plans at the moment. He urgently wants to see the city process streamlined so contractors can get their approved construction drawings back in a matter of days rather than weeks.
"I think we've quit having problems with the building department," Halvorson said. "Where we have had a problem is with the city. It used to take (up to) three weeks, and I should say that for most of the last six months I've had great success (getting plans returned in a timely manner), but recently it has been three weeks again."
Halvorson expressed frustration that the city has added a new layer of approval, requiring plans to be approved by the fire marshal's office in addition to planning, public works and others.
Hughes said plans usually are returned in four to five hours and that it should be easy to work out delays through communication. Hughes said, however, there are challenges in meeting the workload. For example, eight staffers in the planning department funnel plan approvals to just two people in the public works department.
DuBord said that ideally, the city someday would have an Internet tracking system that would allow builders to monitor the progress of their plans through the city in real time on the Internet. But those systems are costly.
"I think that's the No. 1 priority to come out of recent meetings," DuBord said.
Association Board President John Shively of Shively Construction said the complexity of building in Steamboat and, along with it, the complexity of the government approval process has increased because available building lots are simply more challenging.
"All of the easy sites have been built on," Shively said. "The lots are getting steeper."
Dunham agreed. Building department officials see 20-feet-long retaining walls, drainage problems and elaborate driveways that they never used to see, he said.
Members of the Construction Trades Association and government officials agreed that one source of friction are missteps being made by owner/contractors who make mistakes that are messy to untangle. One of the most aggravating instances, Hughes said, is when builders pour foundations or build other structures that intrude on lot line setbacks or utility easements.
"It's happening way more than it should be," Hughes said. "As a quality-control issue, it should never happen. If we could fix that so nobody ever does it again, 80 percent of the stuff the Board of Adjustment is doing might go away."
Hughes said foundation surveys are standard operating procedure in some cities, and the city is contemplating several options to solve the problem.
One is requiring builders to hire a surveyor to issue an "improvements location certification." Another is requiring a full property survey, and another is requiring builders to have foundations surveyed before concrete is poured. However, Hughes said the city is willing to listen to a proposal from the Construction Trades Association to establish a list of pre-certified contractors who have demonstrated their reliability and might be exempt from a survey requirement.
Halvorson said that a survey requirement would penalize the majority of contractors who routinely put foundations where they belong. In addition, board member Julie Hagenbuch said, it would increase the demand on local surveyors who are scheduling clients' projects weeks in advance.
Hughes said the city is dealing with an instance of a contractor who made eight significant changes to a building that are in conflict with the development permit.
"We have an obligation to that neighborhood," Hughes said. "That's an obligation we just can't waive."
Fox suggested the city needs to deal more forcefully in those instances.
Hughes said the city is open to re-examining portions of the city code that are problematic for the construction industry, and he thinks the city's outlook on that subject has changed over time.
"We've gotten over a place when we said, 'Sorry, that's the rule,' to saying, 'OK ... how do you think we should do that?' There's no downside to us changing the process."
Fox said Construction Trades Association members are pleased with the city's response to the group's overtures.
"I have to compliment the city," Fox said. "The city is coming to us and asking us for a standard we can live with."
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