Builders have asked the town to fix a home construction and remodeling permit process they say can take three times as long and cost three times as much as working in other jurisdictions.
Chapel Hill planning and inspections staff will meet with members of the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties this summer to identify problems and potential solutions, said Mary Jane Nirdlinger, the town’s executive director of planning and sustainability.
“We know that there have been projects where something unusual has happened or there’s been a problem, and it’s languished for a long time,” Nirdlinger said. “We also know that that’s probably the most frustrating thing to have happen.”
Permit approval times and costs from Chapel Hill, Durham and Orange County highlight the extent of the problem, said Holly Fraccaro, the association’s chief executive officer. Better data from town staff would be a good place to start making changes, she said.
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They also would like to see an express permit review for some projects; shorter wait times, especially for N.C. Building Code inspections; and changes to outdated local land-use rules, she said. Builders can’t afford to continue ignoring the issues, she said.
“The cost of doing business in Chapel Hill is already extremely high,” Fraccaro said, “Add to that the cost of time lost when dealing with a lengthy review and inspections process, and anyone can appreciate why this remains a serious concern to the builder community.”
Association President Randall Lanou raised the issue in an April petition to the Chapel Hill Town Council, but builders and business owners have fumed privately about the town’s labyrinthine process for years.
While town staff is helpful and knowledgeable, the builders said, department turnover, outdated technology and poor communication hurt businesses and homeowners, who ultimately foot higher costs.
Pete Thorn, owner of Peter Thorn Builders, has worked in Chapel Hill since 1976. An express permit would be “wonderful” for simple jobs, he said, noting that it took 27 days to get comments back about his recent application to build a 250-square-foot back porch and 34 days to be approved.
“This result is the best I could do with my 39 years of experience dealing with the Chapel Hill review process,” he said.
Woody Osborne, of W.D. Osborne Construction, said he spent four days resolving where four downspouts on a house would drain.
“I wish you great wisdom and a certain amount of luck in setting a reasonable direction,” he told the council.
Fraccaro said town staff and builders have been talking regularly since 2013. They gave the town a list of suggested changes last year, she said, from hiring staff and providing customer service training to setting 30- to 60-day deadlines for most residential permits.
Builders have staff phone numbers now but not much else, she said.
Nirdlinger said the town has a more complex process and more local building and zoning rules than Durham and Orange County. Staff also got behind last year because there were more development permits, she said.
Last year’s reorganization was a big upgrade, she said. They also changed some applications and opened a one-stop permit center at Town Hall.
The response has been positive, she said, and more changes are planned, including a new online system for electrical, mechanical and plumbing sub-permits and an inspections update phone app.
Next year’s budget adds five inspectors – for a total of 10 – and three other positions, Inspections Manager Chelsea Laws said.
The work continues to grow, Development Manager Phil Mason said. The number of building inspections rose from a daily average of 90 in 2013 to 118 this year, he said, while the number of zoning permits rose from 259 to 315.
Staff approved 2,559 residential and commercial building permits and 77 zoning compliance permits in the last three years, he said. Forty-four permits stood out for taking an extremely shorter or longer amount of time, he said.
The time to approve residential permits fell by one day in that same period – from 20 days in 2013 to 19 days this year, he said. The number of days required to approve commercial building permits also fell, from 33 days in 2013 to 20 days this year.
The association’s numbers are surprising and frustrating, council members said. Councilman Ed Harrison said builders should have a better idea of what the town needs to change, because they work in Chapel Hill and Durham.
The town should explain why if the process is going to take more time, Councilman Jim Ward said.
If we “give ourselves three days but get most of them done in a day, to me, that is somewhat helpful to the home builder’s association,” he said, “but they’re also out there twiddling their thumbs knowing that it might be three days, and they’ve got resources that are trapped by that longer expectation.”
Councilwoman Donna Bell shared her own experience trying to get the hot water turned on at home in 2001. No one responded until she called the inspector, crying over the phone, she said. There will always be issues, she said, but the town should jump in when a permit takes too long.
“Forty-four (extreme examples) is not a lot,” Bell said, “but if you’re one of those 44, it totally, completely sucks.”