Routt County building department eyes permit process

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— City and county officials agreed Wednesday that a sluggish construction industry might present the best opportunity to streamline a building permit process that often leaves contractors and do-it-yourselfers waiting weeks to hear the word “go.”

Steamboat Springs and Routt County are in the midst of the worst building season of this century, and City Councilman Bart Kounovsky thinks that only makes it more important to boost the technology of the building department shared by the city and county.

Even at a time when declining revenue has the Routt County Regional Building Department dipping into reserves to run a stripped-down department, Kounovsky advocated using some of those reserves to upgrade the department in anticipation of a future construction rebound.

“It’s something we need to push,” Kounovsky told the Building Department Oversight Committee on Wednesday. “I’m not afraid to take a look at it now with a break-even budget for 2012, and tap into some of those reserves.”

Chief Building Department Official Carl Dunham told the committee that Steamboat and Routt County has seen just 18 permits for new single-family homes through July.

Historical records for the first six months of the year show that single-family home permits in the city and county peaked at 100 in 2005 and reached 83 in 2006 and 88 in 2007.

Dunham doesn’t see a problem with his department’s current permitting system but acknowledged it might be time to modernize. Dunham cautioned the group that the base price for Web-based software that allows government officials, owners and contractors to work simultaneously on building plans is $500,000. He’s not convinced the investment will pay off with reduced plan review times.

Plan review is a process that takes place after a building permit application is submitted. Before a permit can be issued, county officials as well as seven city departments (for projects in Steamboat Springs) study the plans to ensure they address key portions of the building code and match up with approval given by their respective planning departments. The various officials sign-off on the plans.

Kounovsky wants the building department to adopt a system that allows the plans to be reviewed simultaneously instead of department by department.

County Manager Tom Sullivan said the software might help address the single biggest cause of delayed building permits — the high number of applications, even from professionals, that are incomplete when first submitted.

“They have to go back to architects or engineers and the contractor has to work with those people to get them back in their schedule,” Sullivan said. “Most of the complaints I get aren’t from contractors but from the owners (clients).”

City Public Works Director Phil Shelton said the owners, who hold the bank note on the construction project, are apt to be the most anxious player in the process. Sullivan agreed that sometimes the clients aren’t aware of why a permit application is returned to a contractor.

The committee, which on Wednesday was missing members including County Commissioner Doug Monger and members of the construction community, asked Shelton to task a users group he leads comprising members of the building industry to explore software packages that could speed up the city/county building process so government will be ready for a rebound, if or when it comes.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

Comments

kathy foos 2 years, 11 months ago

Good idea and investment.You can make sure that the permit is correctly administrated through out the whole process,right up till it leaves the building department.People ,don't forget to make sure that the tax's are right with no errors when you pay your taxes the first time after the permit.It seems that this system could follow the permit to that point to make sure that everyone gets things right all the way down that line.The job is never finished untill the paperwork is done?

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Steve Lewis 2 years, 11 months ago

Bart, The biggest problem for our construction trades, and our economy overall, is the glut of housing inventory. Spending reserves to streamline more homes into this market is a misguided effort, in my opinion.

Instead of building Supply, build Demand. Put your money into infrastructure like broadband, housing assistance programs, amenities, etc...

And ask yourself if the housing boom of 05',06 and 07' was good overall for Steamboat Springs. Much of the contracting came to town for the boom and left when it ended. Today, the excessive inventory is hurting everyone.

Sure, my hindsight is easy, but reading this article I have to ask: Did we learn anything?

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Fred Duckels 2 years, 11 months ago

Times are changing. In the booming past I have felt that the building dept. had a mandate to slow down development. Now that we need to generate activity the attempt to cooperate is coming forward.

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housepoor 2 years, 11 months ago

A brilliant idea by Kounovsky of Colorado Group Realty , it is almost as good as the ROAD TO NOWHERE ........... can't we figure out something to with that road that pertains to Bike Town USA??? Let’s spend $500k to get ready for the BIG COMEBACK....... because you know it is going to happen, it has to!!!!...........because we live in a lifestyle community and are immune to outside economic forces, the baby boomers are coming !!!!!!!!!

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 11 months ago

I think it is an entirely reasonable to look to use technology to streamline the process. It that goal worth spending $500K today? Absolutely not. But County has a pretty capable information services dept and building dept is hardly pushing the cutting edge of technology.

I note that inspections are done on triplicate paper forms instead of an electronic form. I would also suggest that their electronic method for requesting an inspection is clunky and designed for completeness from building dept perspective but hardly friendly for even experienced contractors to use. (Way too many inspection type options)

As for cost of technology, I note that Google Maps managed to download and merge lot plats onto their satellite view for the whole County apparently without spending any money locally. So the old solution might have been $500K technology upgrade, but depending upon the exact goals then new solution might be radically cheaper.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 11 months ago

And Steve, This is not about building more houses, it is about reducing costs for the building dept and the builder. Making something more efficient does not mean more of it, it just means it can be done faster at lower cost.

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Steve Lewis 2 years, 11 months ago

Scott, I'll believe this is about reducing costs for the building department when Carl Dunham says it is. His comments above say the opposite.

Streamlining sounds great. Give it a look. But in practice I expect it will save costs or time with 1/3 of the submittals at best. Because in today's system, the larger issues are resolved and the plans refined before the other departments and your consultants invest their time.

A smaller problem: how many owners have taken plans into the City, found their requirements too daunting, and dropped the project without applying for a building permit at the County? Probably one in ten. Will the County review those plans in this scheme? Would this simultaneous approach have you pay for a County review if you walk away from the City requirements? The old approach should remain an option. We would see how popular "simultaneous" really is.

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Steve Lewis 2 years, 11 months ago

It is interesting to read Tom Sullivan noting that too many plans are “incomplete”. We should be cognizant that “complete”, when documenting a project with thousands of pieces and hundreds of applicable codes, is going to be difficult to achieve.

For example, architects and contractors have told me that my engineering plans are among the most thorough and detailed plans they see. If I hear a complaint, it’s generally that I’m conservative. Even so, the majority of my permit drawings still require something added for the building department review. Generally it’s fulfilling a minor code stipulation, but useful, and a worthwhile improvement to the product for everyone involved, including the owner. In my early career I would resent the review, because I know my structures are sound. Today, with hundreds of plan sets behind me, I better understand this extra step is in everyone’s best interest. The person who benefits the most, without question, is the subsequent buyer of the property.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 11 months ago

Steve, Well, nothing against Carl, but government employees have minimal pressure to improve productivity. Unlike private sector which management generally has lots of pressure to improve productivity, public sector has much less pressure. And then unlike private sector, public sector employees vote and come to government meetings to protest changes.

Thus, I think it is great when elected officials push government employees to look at using technology to improve productivity. That does not mean that every big budget item should be approved. I do suggest that they should be constantly looking at improvements and judging cost vs gains. It would seem that Mr Kounovsky's day job includes making the same sort of productivity vs cost judgments that he is asking government to make. So I do not expect him to push for some pie in the sky solution.

And I think that the cost of using technology to share information should be far less than $500K. That is apparently for the system that allows all to work on the same plans and so need extensive security and change control mechanisms so that someone does not wipe out others work. Well, presumably there is also the nearly free alternative using the web and maybe something like Google Docs for building dept to quickly communicate with their customers. But unlike the $500K program, the building dept could keep their current process for accepting plans and updated plans and thus anything exported online could be trashed without affecting any of the official building dept plans or records.

When inspections are still done on triplicate forms as compared to an electronic form on a laptop or tablet then it is real hard to believe the building dept has reached the limits of productivity gains. If triplicate is really believed to be the most efficient means of recording and sharing information then that is a pretty unique perspective.

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Steve Lewis 2 years, 11 months ago

Scott, We'll see where this goes.

Meanwhile as a part of this process for many years, I'd say the triplicate carbon inspection form is fine. Don't use that as your bellweather.

Paper rules on-site. You just won't see a crew that works off a computer screen. A typical inspection issue takes me to the carpenter or the concrete guy tying rebar. Computers are not yet in their tool set. Sure I send engineering to the architect or contractor via email and CAD files, but these all become paper documentation for the crew and the inspector. (Hard to put an engineer's seal on a computer file.) Also an issue can be quickly sketched on the triplicate form to better portray a problem. Can't easily do that on a laptop.

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spidermite 2 years, 11 months ago

housepoor, The babyboomers are already here. They've been here since the seventies. They refuse to leave.

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