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Jobs lost as Island County permits fall behind

A backlog in permits at the Island County planning department is costing jobs in tough times by delaying builders by weeks or even months, and some aren’t happy about it.

Rick Almberg, Oak Harbor councilman and president of R.D.A. and Associates, sent a letter to the county commissioners Oct. 2 complaining about the “log jam” of permits. He wrote that the delay has had a serious impact on builders’ ability to maintain a steady flow of jobs.

“The timely processing of permits or lack thereof is directly linked to sustaining a vital economy which also generates those taxes required to support the budget,” he wrote. “No permits — no work; no work — no employment; no employment — no taxes; no taxes — no government services; it is as simple as that.”

Planning Director Robert Pederson agreed that the lag in processing permits is a problem, but he explained that it’s due to the massive layoff of staff in the department during the last year. He shared statistics with the county commissioners during a meeting Oct. 7.

“We have 75 percent of the workload of last year and half of the staffing,” he said.

The biggest delay has been in the issuance of land-use permits, which include short and long plats, clearing and grading and site plan review. Pederson said the department is running about two months behind the permit deadlines.

Unlike building permits, county codes sets time frames for processing land-use permit applications. The department is supposed to issue final decisions, for example, within 30 days for the simplest matters, known as Type I permits. They include short plats and subdivisions.

The commissioners approved overtime earlier this year for staff members who process land-use applications; it helped but it didn’t solve the problem. And the overtime budget is nearly used up, Pederson said.

The situation isn’t much better in the building department. Andy Griffin, the building official, said it’s taking the reduced staff about twice as long as normal to process building permits, which are essentially permits to build stuff or tear stuff down. Last year, they processed permits in two to four weeks; this year, it takes six to eight weeks.

The county code doesn’t address time frames for building permit decisions.

“There are no rules,” Griffin said, “but we are trying to keep the time frame as short as possible.”

Griffin acknowledges that some people aren’t happy with the delay.

“Builders are angry because they want to get their people back to work,” he said, “and I can understand that.”

On Tuesday, Almberg said he still hasn’t received a land-use permit for a large project on Goldie Road, which means it will have to be put off until next year. Almberg suggested that permit processing isn’t a top priority for commissioners and that staff time has been directed to other county business, especially long-range planning.

“Long-range planning is important, but is it more important than people who are out of work?” he asked rhetorically.

In an interview Tuesday, Commissioner Angie Homola said she and her fellow commissioners tried hard to balance the resources devoted to both long-range planning and the more immediate needs of permit review. It was difficult to predict how many permit requests there will be, she said, and how many employees are needed to process them.

Homola points out that most of the items on the long-range planning docket are mandated by law; even so, two major projects were removed. The commissioners only received a few complaints all year about the permit backlog. Still, she argues that long-range planning should be a priority even in a recession.

“We must also keep long term goals for land use and local jobs at the forefront so that growth is sustainable, clean water is available and concurrency (transportation loading) is not exceeded such that building comes to a halt,” she wrote in an email to Almberg.

The essential problem, Pederson said, is all about staffing. The department lost 15 out of 34 full-time positions, which is a reduction of 43 percent. But the workload hasn’t decreased at the same level.

Applications for permits are definitely down. By the end of August, the county had received 281 applications for land use permits. At that rate, the county will receive roughly 420 applications this year. Last year, the county received 643 applications.

In other words, the number of land use applications will likely decrease by roughly 35 percent.

By the end of August, the county received 1,042 applications for building permits. At the rate continues, the county should receive about 1,563 applications this year. Last year, the county got 1,986 applications for building permits.

That means the building permit applications decreased by just 21 percent. Griffin said the projects he’s seeing this year are smaller than usual; he guesses that people are doing a lot of remodeling work because the cost of materials has decreased.

County Budget Director Elaine Marlow said the planning department used to be self sufficient, funding-wise, during the building boom before the recession hit. The permit fees and other non-general-fund money was enough to fund the department.

But this year, the department received $450,000 from the general fund.

The planning department obviously isn’t meeting the time frame for land-use permits, but Pederson questions whether it makes sense to have approval time periods in county codes — given the unpredictability of the economy and county revenues.

“In numerous jurisdictions, they don’t codify those processing time frames,” he said.

Coupeville Town Planner Larry Kwarsick, who has a Langley planning company, suggested that the commissioners consider an unspecified “emergency measure” to reduce the procedural workload of planning staff in a June 8 email to a commissioner.

Pederson said the real solution is simply to hire more people. He said staff members told him they need at least one extra full-time person in the land-use side to meet the time-frame requirements.

The question is whether the money is there. The county commissioners increased land-use fees in June in an attempt to capture the cost of processing them. Building fees were increased by 1.5 percent in July. Homola said the extra money may help with processing permits, but it still doesn’t cover the county’s expense in dealing with permits.

“Everyone is shouldering the cost of development,” she said.

County commissioners finished up of a series of budget meetings with elected officials and department heads last week. Marlow is scheduled to give her estimates of the 2010 budget at a meeting Wednesday. Then the hard work begins for the commissioners.

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