Aspen officials to speed building permit backlog
ASPEN ” Officials at Aspen City Hall’s besieged building department, which has a backlog of building-permit applications, say they are taking steps to speed up the process.
By the end of the year, the building department hopes to reduce the number of weeks to get a complex permit issued from 26 to 13. Complex permits involve additional square footage, require multiple referrals from city and county agencies, or involve a change in use.
Officials anticipate that the time taken to get simple permits, which typically involve small residential remodels and projects, should be reduced from four weeks to one week by the end of the year.
Most building departments in other communities have six- to eight-week building permit waits. In Aspen, the current status is 25 weeks for complex permits to be issued and three weeks for simple permits.
It’s a lofty goal when one considers that there are 96 complex permits and 31 simple permits currently pending in the building department. It equates to about $2 million worth of development happening in the city on a daily basis.
But through several steps designed to reduce the delays, top building officials think they can meet their goals.
It took more than a year to even realize there was a problem, said Community Development Director Chris Bendon, adding that the influx of building permits at the onset of Aspen’s construction boom overwhelmed the building department and its staff.
“There were some funny moments,” Bendon said, looking back at the stressful times. “We had all of these plans and not enough racks so we started building more racks, thinking that would solve the problem.”
Obviously it didn’t and the complaints kept coming.
“We spent a lot of time getting distracted in intense policy discussions at the expense of real basic stuff like customer service,” Bendon said. “Frankly, we’re upset by it. We’re not pleased by it and we need to own it.”
Case study: The Boomerang Lodge
The Boomerang Lodge’s plight is indicative of the problems at the building department.
After years of delays and hundreds of thousand dollars in preparation, the Boomerang Lodge is no closer to being rebuilt.
There’s been a hole in the ground on the 27,000-square-foot parcel, located on Hopkins Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets, since last year.
That’s because the owner and developer of the property, Steven Stunda, hasn’t been able to get the necessary permits from the building department.
“It’s agony,” Stunda said, adding he submitted his plans on May 1, 2007, and is still awaiting a building permit to complete the project. “I’m coming up on a full year. It’s been in a state of hold for 11 months.”
He anticipated to open the new lodge in December, but now it’s expected to be in the fall of 2009.
“I lost a year and the city lost a year on having those beds,” Stunda said.
Stunda, a principal with Virginia-based Fountain Square Property, bought the property for $13.5 million in 2005. The condo-hotel received the city’s approval in August 2006 for redevelopment into 54 condominiums, 47 of which the condo owners could not occupy for more than three months a year.
“I’ve carried this project for a year and it’s a lot of money,” Stunda said, adding he put the property up for sale last fall because of delays with the building permits. Those delays, coupled with the national mortgage industry slump, prompted the financier to withdraw from the project.
“It’s put me in a tenuous situation,” Stunda said. “We put it up the [for sale] flagpole to see if anyone would salute it.”
While there have been offers, Stunda said he has decided to wait it out. He hopes to have building permits issued this spring.
The larger policy issues that start at the City Council level ” such as the moratorium, a revised energy code or the master planning of the Lift One base at Aspen Mountain ” stand on the shoulders of customer service and credibility, Bendon said.
He admits that it’s gummed up the process, along with other factors.
But some observers and those affected think it’s part of a larger scheme by the city government to slow down construction.
Developers and real estate agents believe the delay in building permits is a calculated move by City Hall.
“It’s a de facto method of slowing down the projects in the city,” Stunda said.
Local real estate agent Bill Small said it becomes more expensive in the long run in terms of housing and construction costs, because the projects will eventually get done.
“What we’re experiencing in Aspen is unheard of in the building industry,” Small said. “You won’t see delays like this in other cities.”
And given that the current political climate in the City Council chambers appears to favor slow growth, Stunda predicts the building department’s workload will lighten up.
“Absolutely nothing is getting approved so they should be able to clear the decks,” Stunda said.
Stuck in between it all is the homeowner who just wants a simple permit for a remodel.
“If a guy can’t get a permit to re-tile his bathroom, they look at us like ‘what are you doing?'” Bendon said.
“It’s the basic person we are reorganizing around,” Stephen Kanipe, chief building officer at City Hall, said of the changes being made in the department.
Bendon said he and the rest of the building department’s top officials had the “ah-ha” moment when they traveled to Front Range communities to see how their systems function and model the changes after them.
Several steps are being taken to get back to the numbers from two years ago.
Staff has been beefed up and a reorganization of management is aimed at helping customer service in the office and out in the field. The community development department and the building department also plan to outsource some of the review work to an independent contractor.
The building department, which used to be located on the third floor of City Hall, recently moved to 517 E. Hopkins Ave. so staff has more space to work. Before, staff was located in different places, often times in separate buildings, which didn’t allow for efficiency.
The department also is requiring better plans and more information from contractors on the front end.
“The key is not taking in junk,” Bendon said.
Being proactive with the clients also will include monthly meetings with Kanipe and contractors that focus on complicated issues and problem areas that slow down the process without the right information.
The process of getting sign-offs from referral agencies like environmental health also will be shortened.
When contractors want to submit their plans, they now schedule an appointment, which forces them to come prepared. Before, it was first come, first served. As a result, contractors would line up in the cramped space in City Hall and battle it out. Bendon described it as a refugee camp.
“It was like buying tickets to a Who concert,” Kanipe said of the crowd.
The building department now places ads in the newspaper letting people know how long the wait time is. Bendon said he’s had positive feedback from contractors who just want a real-world time estimates.
“We were a little defensive in people asking how long it’s going to take,” Bendon said. “We’re not totally thrilled with the numbers, but people understand what we’re doing and it’s helped us, too, because we’re not so defensive.”
While the City Council was considering a moratorium on commercial development a couple of years ago, developers were racing to the building department to get their plans approved.
“We had several hundred million dollars worth of jobs going and questions kept surfacing on all of them,” said plans examination manager Denis Murray, adding that five years ago, review times only took a month. “There was a lot of work going and a lot of work coming. It was a huge undertaking for us.”
Add to that a shortage of staff ” for more than two months last year there was no one on staff dedicated to just taking in building permit applications, Bendon said.
The times also reflected a robust economy, further exacerbating the delays.
“It was like a tsunami,” said Kanipe.
Murray said the building department’s volume increased 500 percent. He joked that the falling economy might help in reducing the workload in the coming year.
And the level of projects and the building code governing them continue to become more complex.
“We are past cowboy carpentry,” Kanipe joked.
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