June 26, 2013

Portland stuck in its own permitting quagmire

Efforts to speed Portland's process, including studies, have little effect, with approvals taking up to 148 days and complaints rolling in.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Nearly two dozen applicants waited more than 100 days to receive routine building permits from the city this year, according to data released to the Portland Press Herald.

"I would say the city of Portland is notorious for being the slowest municipality in issuing building permits," said Drew Sigfridson, president of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association.

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The average wait for a permit to expand or alter a home or a business here can be weeks, or even months, and that is giving Portland a reputation among builders.

"I would say the city of Portland is notorious for being the slowest municipality in issuing building permits," said Drew Sigfridson, president of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association. "It's just a very painful process."

The city has commissioned two studies in the past year to examine its permitting program. One was completed in February and the other was finished in April.

The city's staff has taken some of the steps recommended in those reports, including pre-development reviews, electronic permit reviews and a change in software.

But city councilors have pressed the staff to explain those changes, which have yet to reduce wait times. A special workshop requested by the council has not yet been scheduled.

"I am not feeling (the improvements), based on the complaints I am getting," Councilor Cheryl Leeman said during a budget workshop this month. "I want to know what systems have been put in place."

On Wednesday, the city is expected to announce an additional change that will enable it to fast-track common permits -- for decks, steps and minor renovations -- if the applicants sign statements saying they intend to comply with all applicable codes.

The permits would be processed in a matter of days, and the work would be inspected by a code officer afterward.

Statewide statistics on waiting periods for building permits issued by cities and towns aren't readily available. Portland didn't begin tracking its permits until this year.

The city's staff often waits for applicants to provide additional information for their permits, said Jeff Levine, director of the city's Planning and Urban Development Department.

One recommendation in the reports is to provide more education and guidance before an application is filed.

"The results show there is still a lot of work to be done," Levine said in a written statement on the city's permit tracking data. "While the changes implemented to date have improved operations internally, they have not moved the needle in permit times to meet the public's expectation of customer service."

Paul Ureneck, vice president of project management for CBRE/The Boulos Co., who has experience with permits in Portland and surrounding communities, said most municipalities can issue a routine permit in less than two weeks. The same type of permit takes six to seven weeks in Portland, he said.

Ureneck said the city may be understaffed and hampered by an onerous process that includes reviews by the fire, historic preservation, building and zoning departments.

"All that being said, it still takes three times longer in Portland," Ureneck said, noting that tenants often have to pay rent while waiting for city approvals. "It's expensive," he said.

Sigfridson said some municipalities turn around routine permit applications in 48 hours.

"If you talk about what can improve economic development in Portland, it's getting businesses up and operational more quickly," he said.

The city spent $16,500 on the two studies aimed at improving the permitting process.

One study, by the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School for Public Service, cost $6,500. It lists complaints from two unnamed developers who are active in the permitting process, including:

n Inconsistency in the fire department's reviews, which at times are "strict and arbitrary."

n An onerous historic preservation process.

n Longer waits and higher fees than in surrounding communities.

(Continued on page 2)

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