Hurry up and wait

Whether you’re building a multistory apartment complex or adding a deck to Nancy Oatesyour home, your budget and timetable hinge on the Inspections Department. The mayor would have us believe the SUP process is responsible for the high cost of development in Chapel Hill. Builders will tell you the cost impact of the Inspections bottleneck. The delays have gotten so bad that the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties has stepped in to press for change.

Over the more than 15 years I’ve been writing real estate stories for the N&O and the Chapel Hill News, builders have been telling me stories about the town’s Inspections Department that would be funny if they didn’t cost property owners so much money and at times put public safety at risk. Stories of delays that leave construction businesses sitting idle and business openings postponed, and incidents of drive-by inspections that could lead to safety issues if shoddy work is signed off on.

For years, builders have been hesitant to speak up about the problems for fear of retribution from inspectors. All work on a construction project must stop until the inspector approves work completed at various stages. Complain up the chain of command about waiting weeks for a permit that in nearby municipalities is a walk-in, walk-out transaction, or about never knowing when an inspector will appear, and you could find out just how slow to show up an inspector can get.

But Inspections oversight had a change of leadership recently, and so did the HBADOC. Holly Fraccaro, HBADOC’s new CEO and executive vice president, reached out to Mary Jane Nirdlinger, the town’s new executive director of planning and sustainability, to set up some meetings to start talking about solutions.

Most of the problems can be traced to the department being chronically understaffed. People in the know tell me that back in the 1980s the town had eight inspectors in the field. But for the past 10 years or more, the number of inspector positions had dwindled to half that. Nirdlinger said the department now has five inspectors, one of whom does plan reviews, plus a manager licensed to do inspections.

Compare that to Orange County. Last year the town and the county each had about $100 million in construction that required permits. The county has seven field inspectors, cross-trained in all trades, and two plan reviewers. The town has been paying county inspectors to help with the backlog. Some developers pay for inspectors to work overtime. Nirdlinger said she is interviewing to hire another plan reviewer and another inspector.

Fraccaro said that’s a good start, providing the new hires have Level 3 licenses (able to inspect any building of any size) and the existing inspectors can be brought up to Level 3.

The county has three full-time staff to issue the 2,800 permits applied for last year. The town has one permit technician and an apprentice.

Nirdlinger said Town Council has to approve all added positions. Sally Greene said she is aware of the problems in Inspections because Roger Stancil has kept council informed. But apparently for years neither Stancil nor council chose to shift any additional resources to help out tax-paying property owners hurt by the delays.

The Planning Department, twice the size of Inspections, has approved several new construction projects of late, and more are in the offing. Fraccaro said she hopes that a partnership between the HBA and Inspections can bring about some badly needed modifications.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. DOM

     /  September 1, 2014

    Nancy –

    Thanks for this informative article. It’s refreshing to see some reporting on the Town’s genuine attempts to improve things!

  2. many

     /  September 1, 2014

    “Along with the weather, Vencel cited permitting at the state level and trouble with inspections and mapping as reasons for the delay.”

    Wondering if the inspection delays were all at the state level or in the town too?

  3. Nancy

     /  September 1, 2014

    Lux ended up canceling 25 leases a couple weeks before school started, leaving those students in the lurch. As for Inspections delays, at least we know the town did not bump Lux to the front of the line. Any builders out there know what state permits Lux would need? Lux would have to follow state building codes, but the town would inspect those and to my knowledge issue all building permits. According to Mary Jane Nirdlinger, Lux paid the overtime costs for town inspectors to do the work. She said the delays weren’t due to town Inspections Dept.

  4. Trip Renn

     /  September 2, 2014

    Someone should point out that the Inspections Department charges outrageous fees, and makes tons of money, but the money doesn’t stay in the department. In essence, it is a cash cow for the town, but is short-staffed at the same time.

  5. joey

     /  September 2, 2014

    The CH Inspections dept is a complete mess. Understaffed, overworked, underpaid. The classic trifecta. There is also a lot of bitterness as they feel the higher ups care little about them and are concerned only with their perception (and their new top floor remodel at town hall – go check it out it’s your tax dollars paying for it). I have heard they are trying to hire more QUALIFIED inspectors, but in talking to employees that have been with the town for many years, this is the worst it’s ever been. The public has a right to be upset but let’s not be too quick to blame the messenger (or inspector).

  6. David

     /  September 2, 2014

    I recently asked an experienced contractor who works all over the Triangle what the Chapel Hill inspections department could do to improve the service it provides to builders. Here’s what he wrote:

    “The Town does need some improvements. They do not allow much time to communicate and interact with inspectors. I realize they are busy, but so are they everywhere else. For instance, in Raleigh, they give out cell numbers to call to ask questions, but more importantly to meet at homes that we are working in and have occupants. We can’t leave doors unlocked on most properties. Chapel Hill inspectors usually can only be reached in the morning for maybe an hour. They get all the calls at the same time so sometimes you can not speak to them. It is rare we can get them at the end of the day. Leaving messages does not always get returned calls. This is not all of them, but the majority. I feel like other places I work the inspectors are more accommodating. They give you the impression that they care, and they will discuss issues at hand and meet at the project. In Chapel Hill, with some inspectors, we are left with hours of waiting around and inspections can sometimes take days to schedule or occur. The two day thing I understand if they are swamped, but when scheduling it should be the next day, not two days.”

    If the inspection fees don’t stay in the inspections department to be used to improve service, where do they go? Here’s a clue: Over the past ten years, the proportion of the Town budget allocated to inspections has decreased by 26%, while the proportion allocated to the Town Manager’s office has increased 60%.

  7. many

     /  September 2, 2014

    David, I agree. If the inspections department is treated as a cost center, the result is the service level you describe.

  8. Mark Marcoplos

     /  September 11, 2014

    The Orange County inspectors do a good job of communicating and working with contractors.

    The Durham Inspections department is incompetent and disorganized beyond belief. They make every other department in the area look good.

    The building code comes out of the state Department of Insurance. In other words, they don’t care how much extra money you have to spend or materials you need to use to help keep their claims down. Often it is overkill or one-size fits all that can impact affordability, interfere with good design, and run counter to environmentally sound practices.

    General suggestion: I think each building inspections department should have a meeting every quarter to discuss real-world issues that have arisen during that time period. A committee composed of a couple of inspectors, a couple of appointed builders, a county commissioner or council member, etc. Builders and homeowners could funnel concerns, issues, ideas, and complaints to these committee reps. How to streamline the process would be a major goal (this is real-world economic development, helping businesses work smoothly & keep costs down). Other goals would be to view code interpretations through the lenses of affordability and sustainability.

  9. Dan Bruce

     /  September 15, 2014

    Excellent idea Mark! I would like to see it be multi-jurisdictional / regional. Most builders cross county / municipal lines frequently. It’s frustrating for all when code enforcement interpretations change from one area to the next.

  10. Mark Marcoplos

     /  September 15, 2014

    Dan – good idea. Maybe there could be an annual regional meeting in which locales could compare notes and move toward uniform interpretations that serve their communities.

  11. Holly Fraccaro

     /  September 16, 2014

    The Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange & Chatham Counties has been working on creating a regional alliance of builders and inspections departments. We already have the buy-in of several of the jurisdictions this side of the triangle and will be scheduling our first meeting soon. We will be solutions focused and look forward to creating a venue for the exchange of best practices.

  12. Mark Marcoplos

     /  September 19, 2014

    This has promise. However there are contractors & builders that are not members of the HBA and need to be represented. The general public & the media may believe that the HBA speaks for all builders, but that is not so. The HBA raises some excellent issues, but is often developer-centric & regional rather than small business & local-oriented.