Building permit speed-up plans still in low gear
By Jaime Levy
Almost a year after vowing to streamline an oft-maligned building-permitting process, Miami-Dade County staffers say they are still implementing remedies to improve efficiency.
Developers, meanwhile, say they are looking for results. Many in the building industry said they continue to work with a tedious process that is costly, both to the private sector, which loses money with each delay, and to the county, which loses economic development revenue when companies choose not to move or expand here.
Last March, Mayor Alex Penelas took over the charge to speed permitting. Some changes have been made since, perhaps most visibly a move last month by more than 500 employees to the Miami-Dade Permitting & Inspection Center, as previously separate offices were consolidated under one roof.
Although some in the construction industry said they are hopeful the center will reduce dead time on their paperwork, they said they remain concerned about the overall process.
"We operate in 36-plus states in the country. I would say South Florida is in the top three of the most difficult places to do business, from a permitting standpoint," said Mark Levy, vice president of Opus South, a division of The Opus Group, based in Minnesota. "There isn't any uniformity. You get one reviewer with a separate set of ideas than another reviewer or inspectors has. It's the luck of the draw. It doesn't seem like they're reading from the same manual."
"Folks who are clients coming into the market have expectations," said Steve Sockrider, director of development for Codina Development, "based on experiences around the country" about how "to go through the design and planning process. They're usually quite surprised with the complexity and the time associated with permitting around South Florida."
These criticisms of the county's permitting process echo responses to a winter 2000 survey of 270 companies in the construction industry. When asked about the length of time for plans to go through the original review and then rework processes, more than half of the respondents rated the Department of Environmental Resource Management, the building department, the planning department and water & sewer as either poor or very poor.
To obtain permits for a commercial building, according to county officials, developers must wait for the plan-review sections of several departments - building, DERM, fire, planning and zoning, public works and water and sewer - to examine their plans. Within the building department alone, plans must be approved by building, plumbing, electrical and mechanical divisions.
By ordinance, it should take no more than 50 days to move plans through all the relevant review departments. Each department has a set amount of time to review a set of plans within the 50-day total. But once plans are reviewed, they are kicked back to the private sector for revisions - and the process begins again, with a new 50-day timeframe in which the county can operate.
Reworks are frequent. The building department's own Donna Ramito, information and permit-support director, said 40% of the plans submitted to her department are returned for revisions.
"You go in with a plan, and the processor finds a laundry list of things wrong. Then you go back to the architect and engineer, and you resubmit it," said Richard Horton, president of Green Construction Corp., who is also vice chair of the county's board of rules and appeals, which interprets the South Florida Building Code. "That reviewer could be different than the first reviewer - he might find another laundry list. This can go on for a long time, until finally someone in each department has decided the plan is acceptable."
Varied interpretation of the code was identified by many in the construction industry as a prime source of aggravation.
"There's a considerable amount of people involved and it's all how you interpret the code," said Javier Cabarrocas, project manager for the newly opened site of Williamson Cadillac. Mr. Cabarrocas, who works with construction consulting firm Peruyera & Associates, recounted a meeting he had at the fire department in which three staffers gave three varying interpretations of one aspect of the code.
"A different person reads the same words and interprets it a different way."
Ted, deputy director of the county's Office of Building Code Compliance, acknowledged the discrepancies between reviewers' reports - and stressed that to avoid drawn-out permitting processes, developers should make sure their plans are complete and compliant from the start. County staffers are given guidelines and training to reduce potential interpretive variances, he said.
"That definitely could be a problem," Mr. Berman said, "because there are gray areas. One person can interpret it as white and another interprets it as black.
"A plan reviewer or inspector more or less has a certain education and experience. They may have more of an expertise in some area. Another one has a completely different set of experiences and can look at it in a different way. You can't help that. That happens in every field."
With the assumption that the permitting process will necessarily maintain some degree of judgment, the county is working with the Beacon Council and the South Florida Builders Association to implement strategies to decrease other potential obstacles.
The county's new permitting and inspection center, 11805 SW 26th St., for example, was designed to cut travel time for developers who previously had to go door-to-door with their plans.
"The way the building is laid out is the way you would review plans," said Assistant County Manager Alicia Cuervo Schreiber. "It's laid out like a Burger King would make hamburgers - like an assembly line."
And more changes have been made or are scheduled, Ms. Schreiber said:
* Since October, the county has allowed plans reviewers to take work home during off hours, allowing some projects to be fast-tracked for an extra fee paid by the developer and saving the county $210,000 in private consultants' fees so far, she said.
* Two separate pilot projects - one in which a large project was assigned a county project manager to navigate the permitting process and another in which the county provided on-site reviewers and inspectors - will likely be expanded.
* Effective March 1, the county will allow licensed architects or engineers to issue permits by affidavit, thereby transferring liability to the private sector but increasing the pool of inspectors.
* This summer, county officials are hoping to have in place software that will allow several departments to review a set of plans simultaneously.
This final change may be the one most likely to shake up the permitting process.
Working with IBM, the county is developing a system by which developers can submit plans electronically - the county will then be able to distribute them to many reviewers at once. Currently, a set of plans must be physically carried from one section to another.
Although Ms. Schreiber said there would still be situations in which a set of plans must be approved by one department before moving to another, the software should cut time for most.
"This should shave off several days and several visits by the developer to the department for revisions," she said.
The Beacon Council is hoping the systemic changes will help reverse the county's reputation as being a difficult place to build, said Frank Nero, president and CEO of Miami-Dade's economic development agency.
"Developers aren't balking at the stringent code. They're balking at getting a straight answer - getting one set of directions," he said. "We've had site selectors and developers indicate to us that the permitting situation here in Miami-Dade County was a major impediment, because time is money. Other locations we compete against market against our permitting. There's no question about it.
"While we want them to be protective of life and safety, speed is also of the essence," he said. "The good part is that the public sector is very much aware of it."
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Asst. Chief Al Suarez, who oversees the fire department's portion of the permitting process, said his staff understands efficiency motives.
"We want them to be successful. We want to help them, not hurt them," he said. "But the limitations of a system that handles the numbers we handle makes a very big difference. If someone misses something in our job, people might die in a fire.
"There are serious consequences in our reviews. To try to cut time short, you're weighing two things in the balance: human life and property vs. review time. It's a very delicate balance."
Charles Danger, director of the county's building department, acknowledged that developers may not be pleased about any need for revisions and said that a total streamlining will take time to show progress. But, he said, he hoped the private sector would, overall, be satisfied with the process.
"We're trying to see how we all work together. There are seven departments with seven directors and seven different ways of operating. It will take a while," he said. "You may not be happy that we say your project" needs a rework, "but you'll be happy at least with the service."