July 8, 2014

Mecklenburg County manager pledges help for frustrated builders

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio promises a “culture change” in how local code enforcers deal with frustrated builders.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio promises a “culture change” in how local code enforcers deal with frustrated builders.

Diorio spoke Tuesday to the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, an influential public policy group whose members are often at odds with local officials.

Builders and developers have long complained that obtaining permits and passing inspections suck up unnecessary amounts of time and money, sometimes for no clear reason.

The recent uptick in building activity, and lack of county staffing after cuts during the recession, revived those problems, said REBIC policy director Joe Padilla. Mecklenburg County issued 9 percent more building permits in 2013 than the previous year.

Diorio, who made the issue a priority soon after being elevated in January, outlined steps the county is taking.

Mecklenburg County and the city have agreed to split the $325,000 cost of an outside review of local planning, permitting and inspections. Consulting firm Gartner Inc. is expected to report its results in December.

The county will add 24 code enforcement officers, plan examiners and customer-service coordinators. It’s looking at alternative scheduling, such as inspections after normal business hours.

But Diorio said the county also aims to soften adversarial relationships with builders.

“There needs to be a tone at the top that collaboration and coordination is how we are going to do business and provide a high level of customer service,” she said after the meeting. “That’s something that we need to make sure is reiterated, and that it goes all the way down through the organization, and that is what the expectation is. And that’s something that just takes time.”

Many problems crop up because code enforcers and plan reviewers operate separately, a void local agencies are trying to fix, Diorio said.

County inspectors enforce construction standards for Charlotte, six towns and unincorporated Mecklenburg. City officials oversee zoning and land-use regulations.

“You should never know if you’re interacting with the city or the county,” Diorio told the builders. “It should be seamless, no matter what. That’s our goal.”

A new data tracking system will flag problems, including projects with a large number of inspection failures or inspectors who fail an unusual number, Diorio said. Inspectors will undergo legal training this fall on the boundaries of their authority.

Eighteen focus groups are being created to pinpoint problems. Mecklenburg County will also test a program for large commercial construction projects aimed at heading off problems.

REBIC is happy with the effort, Padilla said.

“For a lot of folks in our industry, we’d like to see it addressed sooner rather than later,” he said. “But we also want to make sure it’s done in a way that what is put in place is lasting, is meaningful and isn’t just a quick fix that in two years we’re going to have to revisit.”

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