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Permitting: A suddenly sensitive public issue

2014 was supposed to be the year of permitting and code enforcement reform in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. No, it’s not sexy, but it’s something that’s long been a priority of Charlotte’s business and development leaders, who say there’s too much red tape involved in getting their projects approved.

This year, they were joined by Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham, who has been leading the local charge to streamline local permitting and code enforcement. County Manager Dena Diorio and City Manager Ron Carlee also said it would be a priority this year. Then Patrick Cannon happened.

The former mayor’s arrest involved federal agents posing as developers who needed Cannon’s help smoothing the way for their projects. Suddenly, a non-sexy issue became a potentially explosive one. Do Charlotte and Mecklenburg need to tackle permitting and codes at a time people might wonder whether developers get a better-than-fair shake from growth-happy government?

As the Observer’s Eric Frazier reported last week, both Carlee and Diorio says yes. They’re going to plow ahead with plans for reform. They should, with caveats.

Permitting is one of those chronic issues that have roiled cities and towns everywhere for decades. Developers perpetually think it’s too hard to get the necessary nod for their projects, and citizens perpetually worry that they don’t get enough voice for their objections to such projects.

Charlotte and Mecklenburg largely struck a good balance between the sometimes opposing forces, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement. As Carlee noted, Charlotte’s permitting process is a complicated one. Mecklenburg County oversees construction standards, while Charlotte handles health, sanitation, zoning and land use. For businesses, that sometimes means a lot of people to navigate through on the way to project approval.

So Carlee and Diorio are wise to coordinate their efforts and take a hard look at how code enforcement and permitting can be more efficient for businesses. But while the city and county might make things simpler for developers, they shouldn’t necessarily make it easier. Rigorous permitting and smart zoning protect the rest of us; they shouldn’t be compromised in the name of customer service for developers.

As for the Cannon investigation’s impact on reform – Carlee and Diorio are smart not to let it get in the way. The city’s and county’s goal, as always, should be good governing. The ex-mayor’s corruption trial shouldn’t paralyze efforts that might help us get there.

Still, public perception is important, especially in the wake of Cannon’s arrest. So the city and county should make transparency an even greater priority with permitting and code reform. More than ever, Charlotte and Mecklenburg residents need to know exactly what their government is doing.

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