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Commissioners debate building development changes

Workers with Precision Walls of Charlotte cut lumber that will be used to protect new window openings that have been installed this month at the Salvation Army Center of Hope.
Workers with Precision Walls of Charlotte cut lumber that will be used to protect new window openings that have been installed this month at the Salvation Army Center of Hope. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County commissioners debated building inspection problems Tuesday that, to some members, echoed complaints voiced years ago.

An overhaul of the county and city’s building development planning, permitting and inspections, driven by complaints from the industry, is underway.

Some commissioners, at a budget and public policy meeting, seemed unconvinced after a detailed presentation that industry concerns are being heard.

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.

County manager Dena Diorio made the issue a priority soon after being promoted in early 2014, promising a culture change among county regulators.

“What you are hearing is anxiety over whether the process is going to solve the problems we set out to fix,” Chairman Trevor Fuller told the assistant managers who updated commissioners on the review.

The crux of those problems, Fuller added, is whether it is harder to build in Mecklenburg County than other places that also enforce state building codes.

Commissioner Jim Puckett said the complaints still circulating are very like those he heard in his previous terms on the board from 2000 to 2006. Builders are reluctant to publicly cite specific problems for fear of retribution, he said.

Puckett called for “really significant changes to the process and even more significant changes to the culture. … We have got to get this problem corrected.”

The city and county split development duties. The city oversees zoning, site plans and infrastructure projects. The county issues building permits and inspections and coordinates with Mecklenburg’s six small towns.

The joint review of the programs included a survey and focus groups that got comments from more than 1,500 building industry “customers,” Assistant City Manager Ann Wall told commissioners.

An outside consultant, Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., has recommended a “unified” oversight structure between the city and county but not a full merger of their jurisdictions.

Among the consultant’s seven recommendations: a focus on customer needs; simplified processes; coordination of the different technology the county and city use to process paperwork; and consistent interpretations of codes.

Staff proposed that action on four priority recommendations begin immediately, with changes in place for all seven by the end of 2017.

Some changes have already been made, said Assistant County Manager Leslie Johnson. Among them is adding customer service to employee performance reviews and an ability for staff to resolve problems in the field.

Henderson: 704-358-5051;

Twitter: @bhender

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