Thursday, April 17, 2014
By Randy Billings firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
A study by the Government Consulting Group cost the city $10,000. It recommends:
n Simplifying the city's zoning regulations.
n Providing easier access to information online.
n Expediting reviews for projects being done by licensed professionals.
n Working with homeowners on compliance at the start of the process, rather than requiring multiple revisions.
The report says Portland may be understaffed, but that assessment cannot be made until streamlining measures are taken.
The Press Herald filed a Freedom of Access Act request on June 4 for the two studies, and the city's database of wait times for permits. The city responded on June 5 by posting the studies on its website.
It provided the requested details about wait times for permits issued in 2013 on Monday, two days before officials planned to issue a news release about additional changes to the program designed to speed up permit processing.
City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said it was a coincidence that the city posted the studies online the day after the newspaper requested them. It also was a coincidence that the requested data on wait times was provided after the city prepared an announcement about improvements to the permitting process, she said.
Levine said the wait times listed in the city's report do not include Planning Board reviews, but may include Zoning Board of Appeals hearings.
According to city data, the average wait for commercial permits ranges from 43 to 70 days. It took about 70 days, on average, to get a permit to add onto a business and an average of 55 days to amend a commercial building permit.
It took more than 43 days, on average, to get a permit to alter a commercial structure and 45 days, on average, to get a change-of-use permit.
One commercial permit, for an addition, took the city 148 days to issue, partly because it needed a historical review. Another permit for a commercial addition took 141 days, partly because of a 124-day review by the fire department to ensure that it met fire codes.
Homeowners also face delays when they try to alter their homes. The average wait for such a permit is 29 days, and the average wait for a permit to build an addition is 67 days.
City Councilor Edward Suslovic said this month that fixing the permitting process should be a priority, because when construction is done -- whether it's a deck or a multimillion-dollar project -- it brings revenue to the city.
"It's one of the ways we increase taxable value in the city," Suslovic said. "This is an issue that can't afford to wait."
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: