County renovates building process

Developers who want to get their building plans reviewed by the county may have a wait, as the building development division reorganizes, hires more people and tries to wade through a backlog of old applications.

The building industry, which has gone from boom to bust to boom since the early 1990’s, is playing havoc with county personnel who have tried to add and subtract workers according to the demand for new buildings.

For each new building that goes on the books, a plan must be submitted and approved by the county public works department, with permits issued for construction and follow up inspections to ensure conformity with the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code.

“Our bottom line is safety,” said Tom Bruun, assistant public works director.

The building review section of public works commercial development division has come under attack recently because of its runaway workload. Builders and developers, its main customers, say the county needs to speed up the process.

From March to June 2002, the department was hit with a peak number of plans — 5,665 at one time — while experiencing numerous vacancies in the plan review area.

Builders complained the delays were adversely affecting their business.

“Obviously there were things we thought could be improved,” said Miles Friedman, chairman of a task force looking into the issue, “but on the whole I think the county’s process is pretty good.” Speed and consistency in reviewing plans were the main improvements builders wanted, he said.

The county responded by hiring new contract plan reviewers as well as two engineers, and splitting the plan review section off from code enforcement for greater management oversight. The division’s customer service windows were also changed — generally from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to allow staff more time to do their work.

Full staffing of the division occurred in October and public works is acting on 22 recommendations made by the task force, which include comparing Prince William’s practices against other jurisdictions to see where they could be improved.

Another source of complaint was inconsistency among reviewers in interpreting the state code.

“There’s been a major influx of new people with new ideas and different life experiences,” Mays said. For the inexperienced, additional training will be offered.

But it will be some time before the county can fully recover.

In July 2003, the average residential plan review time increased to 1.7 weeks from the one week it took in July 2002. The average tenant layout plan review time went from two weeks in July 2002 to 6.6 weeks in July 2003. Commercial building plan reviews on average took 10.5 weeks in July 2003 compared to the four weeks they took in July 2002.

Despite that plans continue to roll in.

“In the seven and a half years I’ve been here the direction has only gone up in terms of permits issued, fees collected and inspections done,” said Eric Mays, director of the division.

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