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County building permit wait times on decline
Numbers released by the Island County Planning Department indicate that wait times for building permits are decreasing for some — but not all — projects.
In a memo released last week by Planning Director Dave Wechner, permits for commercial development are, on average, 19 days faster than in 2013 and residential developments are 13 days faster than in 2013.
Mobile home permits, however, are only one day faster, and flood development permits are two days slower.
The county has been criticized in recent years for delays in building permitting and reopened to the public on Fridays in June to help address the issue.
Wechner said a total of 646 building permit applications were filed Jan. 1 through June 30 with 599 issued with an average processing time of 29 days.
“To understand the whole of the process, you have to remember that some building permits are subject to land use approval, while some are not,” Wechner said. “Some are subject to health and public works [department] approval – some are not. So when someone asks us, ‘How long does a building permit take to be issued?’ That depends.”
Wechner said the length of the permitting process depends on what levels of review the project entails, whether the property is on a shoreline, a wetland, other critical area or steep slope.
What’s important to note, said Wechner, is that a building permit can be in process at the same time as a land use approval, but cannot be issued until the land use is approved.
Dennis Kamera, of Kamera and Gilles Carpentry in Langley, said he has seen improvements in the county’s permit processing on some projects. Kamera said the county went out of its way recently to expedite a few simple projects in order to keep his staff employed.
“We’ve had a really good experience with the county,” Kamera said. “I do believe they’ve made very positive strides in speeding up the process.”
High turnover at the county and the increasing complexity of the federal regulations on critical areas and shoreline properties, however, can make the planning process difficult for county staff, he noted.
“It’s frustrating to see,” Kamera said. “I’ve been there when contractors have berated them. It’s a no-win situation, it seems like, for them. But that’s the nature of those projects and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
Builder Scott Yonkman, who also serves on the Island County Planning Commission, agreed that he has seen simpler projects get permitted more quickly over the last few months.
But, those involving critical areas or waterfront are “still pretty bogged down,” Yonkman said.
“I believe David Wechner, who we work pretty close with and have had meetings with about this, is sincerely trying to improve the process and we appreciate that.”
Yonkman said his main frustration as a builder is when planners seem leery of making decisions on permitting, even when they meet all the criteria and provide the necessary reports.
“Even when we turn that in, they still seem to hesitate and take longer than we believe is appropriate to make decisions when the bulk of the work has been done,” Yonkman said.
Part of the issue is likely understaffing, which is also improving, Yonkman said, but another factor is county staff’s fear of making “a bad decision that will come back to haunt them later.”
“I understand their caution but we definitely gotta keep an eye on keeping the projects moving forward and serving our clients in a timely matter,” Yonkman said.