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Patrick Cannon’s arrest doesn’t deter plan to streamline permitting

Embedded in the FBI case against former Mayor Patrick Cannon is a prickly issue that has orbited Charlotte’s political and development circles for decades.

The question is this: Does local government tie up building projects with too much red tape?

The FBI agents who arrested Cannon March 26 did so after posing as real estate developers and asking for something developers across the country seek from politicians every day – help getting building permits and other approvals expedited.

Surely it wasn’t the first time a developer had asked Cannon for help, even if such requests usually don’t come attached to thousands of dollars stuffed in a Fossil briefcase, as the FBI alleges.

Anyone who’s been around Charlotte for a while knows this is a city built on growth. What do we do when we want to impress our out-of-town relations? We drive them past our skyscrapers, even as we secretly wish we could sprout a few more to make it even grander.

So I was intrigued last week when Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee and Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio told the Charlotte Chamber they are forging ahead with plans to streamline local permitting and code enforcement.

After decades of complaints from developers, they intend to hire consultants to see whether the permitting currently split between the city and county can be made more efficient.

“We don’t know exactly what the problem is but we do know we get a lot of complaints from those who try to use the system,” Diorio said, “that it takes too long, it’s too onerous, and it impedes their ability to bring projects to closure quickly.”

Carlee, former chief operating officer of the International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C., said Charlotte’s permitting process is “extraordinarily complicated.” The county enforces construction standards, while the city handles health and sanitation issues, as well as zoning and land use.

“There’s a lot you have to navigate,” Carlee said. “Our commitment is to get it right.”

That’s what the business community – especially developers – longs to hear.

“We’ve talked about it for 20 years,” Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan said. “There’s ongoing frustration in the development community that today’s plumbing inspector concludes something’s OK, and tomorrow a different plumbing inspector comes and draws a different conclusion.”

The city and the county announced their intention to study this issue before the Cannon scandal broke. But in its wake, some are wondering whether developers and politicians play by the same rules as everybody else.

Is now the right time to streamline the rules? Should the Cannon scandal give politicians pause about doing something that some voters will see – rightly or wrongly – as cozying up to powerful developers?

“I’m worried about that,” Morgan said. “But I don’t think that one gets knocked off track.”

Asked whether the Cannon case gave him second thoughts about streamlining development rules, Carlee offered a strong no.

“I have no concerns about moving forward. Actually, to the contrary, this is an excellent opportunity to examine the process and make sure that it works as efficiently as it can for everyone.”

Diorio said it’s too early to know how the Cannon case might reflect on the permitting review, if at all.

John Fryday, a local architect, has experienced the complex permitting process while working on projects. But he’s also been in the center of zoning battles against new developments as a volunteer helping residents of the Dilworth Community Development Association.

He said that while more efficiency is good, some developers seem to think everything from zoning reviews to building permits should get approved in one office, and in short order.

But that would leave less room for residents affected by new projects to voice their thoughts.

“We want a say in it too,” he said. “Maybe it can’t be a two-hour-over-a-table decision on everything.”

Charlotte-based urban planning consultant Michael Gallis said there’s always a balance to be struck between private developers and the public sector.

Charlotte, he believes, strikes that balance as well as anywhere.

“There’s always complaints on both sides, from government saying we’re getting pressured too much and from developers saying we’re constrained too much,” he said. “But these are the normal aches and complaints when you have two parties having to depend on each other.”

Eric Frazier writes about development, jobs and the economy. Got a story tip? Contact him at 704-358-5145, or @Ericfraz on Twitter

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