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Mecklenburg plans new building permit approach to help homeowners, small businesses

By Elizabeth DePompei
edepompei@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/25/16/56/1cHcXn.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Isabella Bartolucci - ibartolucci@charlotteobserver.com
    Fred Trumbower, a general contractor for Hendrick Construction, works on a set of plans with Scott Westbrook, a plans reviewer with the Commercial Technical Assistance Center at the Hal Marshall Service Center on Thursday. Trumbower said he has been coming to the center for at least 10 years and has seen improvements in the permit application process thanks to technology.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/25/16/56/1pPkB9.Em.138.jpeg|456
    Isabella Bartolucci - ibartolucci@charlotteobserver.com
    Rochelle Rivas, from the Dardon Group, uses one of the new kiosks at the Hal Marshall Service Center on Thursday. Customers check in at the kiosks to figure out which desk to go to for services such as building permits and zoning.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/25/16/56/zNbDa.Em.138.jpeg|222
    Isabella Bartolucci - ibartolucci@charlotteobserver.com
    Customers get help from staff members at the Permitting and Plan Submittal desk at the Hal Marshall Service Center on Thursday. In the foreground, Fred Trumbower, a general contractor for Hendrick Construction, works on a set of plans with Scott Westbrook, a plans reviewer who works for the county.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/25/16/56/kjmBw.Em.138.jpeg|217
    Isabella Bartolucci - ibartolucci@charlotteobserver.com
    Hubert F. Schmauch walks past the permitting and plan submittal desk at the Hal Marshall Service Center on North Tryon Street on Thursday. Customers can apply for commercial and residential building permits in person or online.

Plans are underway for a new customer service center to help Mecklenburg homeowners and small business owners navigate building permits and inspections, with the center expected to open by early next year.

The new center is part of an in-depth review by County Manager Dena Diorio of code enforcement practices. The review began early this year and county officials say it is in response to frequent complaints from developers and homeowners.

After the review began, then-Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested in a federal corruption sting. Court documents related to his case include claims by Cannon that he could influence planning, building permits and inspections in exchange for bribes. He has pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing. The investigation is ongoing.

Assistant County Manager Leslie Johnson said the corruption investigation is not affecting the review.

Last month, the county finalized a $325,000 contract with Garther Inc., a global consulting company, to review the county’s permitting and inspection processes. Garther’s work is expected to begin in early August and last 15 weeks. The city of Charlotte is splitting the cost with the county.

Meanwhile, the county’s Land Use & Environmental Services Agency is reviewing the code enforcement process and holding focus groups.

So far, three new customer service positions have been approved, paying an average of $45,000 each, Johnson said. It could take 30 to 60 days to fill the positions, and extensive training may be required, she said. Once the job postings are listed, the hiring and training process should be completed in about six months.

The new employees will focus on assisting the 5 to 7 percent of those using the services who are first-time or novice customers, said Ebenezer Gujjarlapudi, who oversees the land use department.

Currently, homeowners and developers can go to the Hal Marshall Service Center at 700 N. Tryon St., where an information desk and a kiosk help them figure out where to go. But about 95 percent of customers go through the permit process online, Gujjarlapudi said.

While the design for the new center is not concrete, Gujjarlapudi said it could mimic the Apple Genius Bar where employees walk around with iPads and assist customers.

Earlier this month, a first wave of focus groups, which included builders, architects, homeowners and contractors, wrapped up after 18 sessions that lasted around 90 minutes each.

The second wave will begin late this month and carry over into August.

Help for first-time customers

Generally, homeowners need to apply for a building permit if construction expenses exceed $5,000 or if the project involves changes to things such as plumbing, air conditioning, electrical wiring or appliances. Examples of projects that require a permit include decks, room additions and sub-floor repairs.

Gujjarlapudi said the process for each project depends on its scope and building codes. How quickly project plans can get reviewed and approved can depend on how prepared the customer is, he said.

Once the project begins, contractors and homeowners may make changes to the plan, which can lead to issues during site inspection, he said.

County commissioner Pat Cotham said a customer service center will be helpful for first-time or infrequent customers.

“People that use code enforcement and permitting, some of them are highly experienced and do it every day,” Cotham said. “And there’s also some lady who wants to have a bakery and it’s her first time. She needs a little extra help.”

Other initiatives stemming from the review include scheduling options for inspections and a website redesign.

“There are some things that are more immediate that we’re working on right now,” Johnson said. “I think people will start seeing more of the other smaller things, but ones that will make a difference, by the end of the year if not sooner.”

Johnson said those changes include updating forms and checklists.

Cotham said that problems with the permit and inspection process can hurt Mecklenburg’s ability to grow new businesses.

Suzie Ford, who co-owns NoDa Brewing Co. with her husband, said discrepancies between an approved development plan and inspectors’ requirements delayed the opening of their business and cost them thousands of dollars. If they had to do it again, they wouldn’t have opened a brewery in Charlotte, Ford said.

“When things get delayed, people don’t get jobs and companies don’t want to come here,” Cotham said. “We want people to start businesses, but we have to make it user friendly and business friendly so they don’t get frustrated and delayed.”

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