• Thu. Aug 11th, 2022

‘Breaking This Bottleneck’: Contractors Face Significant Delays In Obtaining Building Permits In Spokane City And County

ByLinda W. Smith

Jun 18, 2021

Prior to last year, local contractor Jim Warner said he could bring five garage plans to the city of Spokane or Spokane County after lunch and come out that same afternoon with five building permits.

Now Warner, owner of Solid Structures, has said it waits up to 12 weeks, causing a myriad of downstream issues that make it nearly impossible to manage 11 teams and customer expectations, as record prices for the lumber nearly doubled the cost of these projects.

“In Spokane County we loved all the jobs we had there,” said Spokane-based Warner. “Then they went to where they were the worst in the state. I would prefer to get a permit in Kittitas County. This is unheard of.

Warner crews build approximately 100 stores, a few homes, and commercial buildings each year across Washington, Idaho, and Montana. But due to delays in obtaining permits, he had to send his teams to work in places like Chelan and Omak.

“We are taking jobs that we didn’t want to take but were forced to take because we couldn’t work here,” he said.

Spokane County and Spokane City building officials recognize the long wait times and both said this week they believe they have started fixing the issue.

“We are hopefully a few weeks away from being back to where we were,” said James Moore, construction and code enforcement manager for Spokane County. “I hope that by the end of the month or the end of next month we will be back to where we were before.”

In the city, the issue was raised this week as council members Michael Cathcart and Karen Stratton said they filed complaints about the time it takes for planners to issue permits.

“I’ve heard people frustrated that times are getting longer and longer,” Cathcart said.

Kris Becker, acting director of community and economic development, said the city has hired a third-party examiner to help speed up the permit application process.

“They don’t lie down,” Becker told Cathcart of the clearance times. “They’ve been around four to six weeks for a while.”

Stratton asked Becker how long the authorization process should take. Becker said it would take about 30 days for a contractor to get a business license and even less for a single-family home.

“We saw this huge increase in the workload at the end of January,” Becker said. “And, we’re finally coming to the end of this. You will see some improvement.

Pandemic outbreak

Joel White, chief executive of the Spokane Home Builders Association, said the state’s new energy codes, which require builders to further limit air emissions from homes and require heating sources to include renewable energies and avoid fossil fuels, were supposed to come into effect on June 1, 2020.

With the pandemic raging, state officials pushed back the new codes to February 1 and dozens of contractors rushed to submit permit plans under the expiring rules to avoid the new codes, which can add between $ 20,000 and $ 30,000 to the price of new homes, White says.

“We’re saying that for every $ 1,000 that the cost of a home increases in our economy, 200 families are deprived of the ability to buy a new home,” White said. “When you increase it by $ 20,000, you have excluded 4,000 families. That’s why they were trying to build these houses to a more sustainable standard.

Moore, the building official, said Spokane County received around 400 building permit applications as of January 2020. But that number has climbed to around 800 this year before the new code changes.

“We were sending people home because of the governor’s regulations about who could be in office and who couldn’t,” Moore said. “The staff were not there to cope with this 100% increase. “

Entrepreneurs rushing to beat new energy codes joined thousands of other residents who were sent home to work and decided it was time to pick up their hammers, he said .

“Those plans came up and people were still submitting their decks, garages and renovations,” Moore said. “That’s what we did, was to get out of that bottleneck.”

Warner has kept some of his harshest criticisms for planners. He said many phone calls requesting information from city staff go to planners who haven’t set up voicemail, and it sometimes takes days to get an email answered for very simple questions.

“The city is the worst,” Warner said. “Getting a hold of someone in town is very, very difficult. “

When the city responded, it presented a whole new set of issues, as city employees used virtual meetings to review building requests.

“Their people were having problems with their Internet in their homes. They had barking dogs. It was extremely unprofessional, ”Warner said. “If someone did a presentation like this for one of my clients, I would fire them. That’s how bad it was.

Manage chaos

Warner said he leads between nine and 11 teams to do whatever work customers want. It has become almost impossible to manage.

“I try to schedule these teams to work when you don’t know if you’re going to get a permit,” he said. “Or, you’re told you’ll get a permit in eight weeks and it takes 12 and you have to scramble.”

When customers turn to contractors, they expect the job to start quickly, Warner said.

“When they get an award from the contractor, who says we can do it for x amount, then they have to wait 12 weeks,” he said.

With lumber prices reaching record highs, some lumber suppliers would only guarantee a quoted price for a few weeks. If the permit is delayed, the project will cost consumers more or eliminate the contractor’s profit margin, he said.

“If you earn 20% on a job, so much the better. But if the wood goes up 46%, you can’t even do that job, ”he said. “It’s the danger for the entrepreneur, you don’t really know how to plan. “

Due to delays and escalating prices, some potential customers are using alternative methods, Warner said.

“Customers came to us and said, ‘Farmer Joe is going to build our building.’ We are not going to withdraw a license and we are going to pay in cash, ”he said. “They want their building to be built and they’re not going to wait 12 weeks for a building permit. “

This scenario leads to structures that may or may not meet building codes.

“There has been a huge loss of revenue for the city and the county because of it,” Warner said. “I know firsthand that a lot of people have built a lot of things and it hasn’t been read by anyone.”

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