Permitting quagmire: Some call inflexibility a hindrance to growth

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 31, 2012

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Mikey Wetzel wants to sell burritos.
Originally from California, the video-game designer and his family came up with the idea for Go Burrito and purchased the old Carousel Cafe building in downtown Salisbury. The restaurant will offer made-to-order Caribbean-flavored cuisine, live music and a rooftop bar.
Wetzel planned to open June 1. Today, the building remains a gutted shell.
Wetzel submitted his plans April 20 to the Rowan County building inspections department. After nearly three months of red tape, Go Burrito received tentative construction permits on July 16. Wetzel said delays have cost him $1,000 a day.
“The pattern I see here is one of unanswered emails, non-returned phone calls, foot dragging and buck passing,” he said.
Wetzel is not alone.
Many business owners, developers, architects and contractors say former employees in the inspections department slowed economic development in Salisbury and Rowan by nitpicking plans, failing to communicate and requiring version after version of design plans. They describe an environment of inflexibility, unresponsiveness and even arrogance.
“It is called permitting,” architect Bill Burgin said. “It’s not called not permitting.”
A ‘gauntlet’
Developers call the permitting process a “gauntlet” and “confusing at least and regressive at worst.” Several previously outspoken developers would not go on the record for this article, concerned their comments could result in further delays on their projects.
Salisbury and Rowan need government officials who help, not hinder, growth and development, many said.
In response, both the city and county are changing the way they interact with the business community.
At the county, the director and plan reviewer have left the building inspections department, and County Manager Gary Page has appointed a hiring panel to help find a replacement. Page has pledged to find a director with a philosophy that makes things easier for developers, while protecting the safety of residents.
At the city, planners have launched a one-stop shop at 132 N. Main St. where business owners can get everything from a business license to a grease trap permit under one roof. A Rowan code enforcement officer has a desk there to improve communication between the city and county and help lead business owners through the permitting process.
“We have really begun to construct that bridge that has been long-awaited,” Preston Mitchell, the city’s Planning and Development Services manager, told economic developers recently at a strategy session.
The changes are welcome relief in an industry where time is money. Guardedly optimistic, developers say this could mark a new beginning for construction and reuse of commercial buildings in Salisbury-Rowan.
Stopping Go Burrito
“We need to get this process more streamlined so people won’t be afraid to take on these projects,” said architect Gray Stout, a 30-year veteran of the industry.
Stout designed, and then redesigned, the new Go Burrito.
He and Wetzel said they believe former county inspectors over-enforced the building code and refused to make common-sense interpretations within their authority that would have moved the project along and saved money.
Wetzel must brick up a back door because he doesn’t have space to add a ramp for wheelchairs. Meanwhile, he must dig up 12 feet of the alley next door and lower the grade 14 inches to install a new side door.
He must move the staircase and enclose it as an “area of refuge,” while other downtown restaurants have open staircases. His second-floor bathrooms must be wheelchair-accessible, although the building has no elevator.
He needs a $45,000 sprinkler system.
“As a result, my initial design was rejected and my $10,000 investment in design fees was throwaway money,” Wetzel said.
Stout said Go Burrito “hit a lot of roadblocks” that would have been avoided in communities like Lexington and Morganton, where inspectors are willing to use parts of the code that give more flexibility for the reuse of historic buildings. Building inspectors can make exceptions when code requirements are deemed “technically infeasible,” Stout said.
Recent delays
Page said having only one plan reviewer left in the department has caused recent delays. Interim Director Thomas O’Kelly had 12 sets of plans to review the day he arrived.
O’Kelly prioritized as best he could, Page said, depending on the date the plans were received and the size and scope of the projects.
Go Burrito was one of the projects delayed in this process, Page said.
Before the department became short-staffed, Page said, some projects might have taken a long time because plans had to be changed to meet code. Others got held up in Salisbury’s permitting process, which has more rules and restrictions than the state code, he said.
Ariella Sanchez, who will open Ibiza Deli on Wednesday, said she submitted four plans to the county at a cost of $3,000 before finally winning approval.
The deli, a sister restaurant to Mambo Grill on South Fulton Street, was supposed to open last October.
Former inspectors offered no guidance or suggestions, just denials, Sanchez said.
“They would literally say, ‘Well, we will see if the next one works,’ ” she said.
After the third plan was turned down, 20-year-old Sanchez called a meeting with the code enforcement director, plan reviewer and her architect. Finally, Sanchez said, she understood what the county required for the deli to pass code.
“We were not trying to cheat the code. We were trying to do our very best to meet the code so we could open,” Sanchez said. “But we were not getting the exact information we needed to move forward.”
That’s a common complaint among developers. Projects get hung up on one or two issues, but inspectors do not offer alternatives, developers say.
“If we’re passing back and forth plan versions over and over, we need a different approach,” said Robert Van Geons, executive director of RowanWorks Economic Development.
Getting to ‘yes’
Van Geons sat on the hiring panel and participated in multiple meetings organized by the Rowan Chamber of Commerce to give the county and city feedback on why it’s become more difficult to get projects up and running.
The county is capable of cooperating with the private sector, said Van Geons, who pointed to the Rowan County Planning Department, run by Ed Muire, as an example.
“We have had a really good experience working with Ed and his team over there,” Van Geons said. “It can be done well.”
Van Geons, who worked in code enforcement for 10 years before becoming an economic developer, said upcoming changes will make the development process more efficient while still protecting the health and safety of the public.
“The ideal that we’re trying to get to here is finding a way to get to ‘yes’ as much as possible,” he said. “Whether because of planning and zoning or building inspections, they can’t always say yes to everything. But there is always an alternative.”
Developers want recognition that building inspectors have discretion on certain issues in the code, Van Geons said.
Burgin has been an architect since 1975 and designs buildings throughout North Carolina.
“In some cases, you see more flexibility in interpretation of the codes in other communities,” Burgin said.
Architects and developers can turn to the N.C. Department of Insurance when they disagree with building inspectors. The state won’t overrule the county but can provide another interpretation of the code, Burgin said.
A county inspector was going to make Burgin tear off a roof during a disagreement over fire-proof materials, Burgin said, even though the materials he used had been approved during plan review.
Burgin appealed to the state, which agreed with the architect. The inspector backed down, and Burgin avoided a $15,000 alteration.
“It’s a very hard job being an inspector and having to tell people things they don’t want to hear,” Burgin said. “But there are things the system can do to streamline and smooth the way and be more thorough.”
City and county issues
Burgin, a former Salisbury City Council member, helped write the city’s Land Development Ordinance, sometimes scorned by developers as well.
Contractor Kyle Davis said the city’s red tape delayed the Walgreens on East Innes Street by six months, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Davis, owner of KMD Construction, built the drugstore.
Working with county building inspectors was another story, Davis said.
“We never had any problems,” Davis said. “They were very friendly and easy to deal with.”
The city and county both have problems serving the business community, said Chris Cohen, a contractor who lost his bid for county commissioner in 2010.
Some projects like the Courtyard Marriott, finally under construction on East Innes Street at Interstate 85, languish for years due to permitting bureaucracy, inspection delays and a lack of communication between the city and county.
“They both contribute to drive development away,” Cohen said. “Each one has their own quirks. There is enough blame to go around.”
Greg Edds, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, said developers are telling him the city and county are making “tremendous progress.”
And not a moment too soon, Edds said.
The Rock Hill city manager made an impression on the business community and local leaders in February as the guest speaker at the Salisbury City Council retreat.
As David Vehaun detailed aggressive initiatives Rock Hill has taken to lure development, he told listeners to make no mistake. Rock Hill is not competing with Charlotte for new business, he said, it’s competing with Salisbury.
“That certainly woke a lot of folks up,” Edds said. “We realized we have to look at the whole process in a different light — not only how we court businesses, but how we treat them once they arrive.”
Reporter Karissa Minn contributed to this article.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.