Inspecting Inspections

Problems persist at the town’s Inspections Department. Despite nagging byNancy Oates the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties, the response from the Planning and Sustainability Department, which oversees Inspections, has been sluggish.

At the Oct. 19 Town Council meeting, Planning and Sustainability director Mary Jane Nirdlinger gave an update on progress in trying to fix functioning challenges that have plagued Inspections for years. Though the town charges higher permit fees than any surrounding jurisdiction, its ability to perform inspections in a timely manner lags behind its peers. It takes far longer to get a permit and inspection done in Chapel Hill than elsewhere in the area. That costs builders and homeowners time and money and discourages builders from taking on projects in Chapel Hill.

Nirdlinger started her presentation with the positives: The department has hired two additional people and cross-trained staff. Decks and sheds no longer require a zoning review, and the threshold above which a homeowner must apply for a permit for renovation work has been raised to $15,000. The department has switched from a paper to digital application so people can apply online, has updated its software and has simplified its zoning-building form. It does some inspections concurrently rather than sequentially, to eliminate the builder having to wait for a second inspection appointment on a project. It aims to drop the waiting time between zoning and building reviews from 15 days to five.

But the department is not there yet.

Holly Fraccaro, CEO of the HBA-DOC, said that since she filed a petition to council in April requesting that improvements be made, it has taken 77 days to get Nirdlinger’s department to meet with the HBA and agree on goals. Village Plaza Apartments was approved in less time.

Collecting data to track a project still flummoxes Inspections. A builder who spoke to council volunteered to write an Excel spreadsheet before he left the meeting that night; it could be shared on Google Docs so all inspectors could enter information. Nirdlinger demurred, preferring to tinker with software the department purchased a few years ago that she admitted didn’t work well for inspectors in the field. They ended up writing down information on slips of paper and returning to the office to enter it into the system. When Jim Ward directed her to capture the information on a separate spreadsheet until the software could be made to work, Nirdlinger responded, “We’ll try.”

Meanwhile, Inspections staff morale is low and turnover is high. And waiting in the wings, needing significant time and attention from Inspections, are the developments at Obey creek, Ephesus-Fordham, The Edge (now called Carraway Village because the developer is moving forward with the apartments but putting the commercial buildings on hold), and more than 5,000 residential units already approved by council.

Inspections comes back to council in February for an update. Let’s hope for serious improvement. Public safety hangs in the balance.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  October 26, 2015

    That’s interesting. Amy Ryan and I met with Mary Jane Nirdlinger last spring as reps from the Planning Board* to deliver observations on the Obey Creek Development Agreement document written by her department. At the time I asked how the town’s Planning Department** would inspect new high-rise structures and whether it intended to hire additional, high-rise trained inspectors, and the answer was that the Planning Department would try to avoid hiring if it could be avoided.

    *I think the new designation “Planning Commission” blows smoke by making a citizens’ advisory board appear to be an elected group like the BOCC.
    ** Now known as the Development Services Division of the Office of Planning and Sustainability.

  2. Nancy

     /  October 26, 2015

    Why would Planning not want to hire sufficient inspectors? The current inspectors are overwhelmed now.

  3. It’s also an economic development issue. Especially if you are a builder losing money because of the situation. And, it’s an issue of affordability. Delays and confusion drive up costs.

  4. many

     /  October 27, 2015

    I have a question; is the inspection department treated as a cost center from a budget perspective?

  5. Dan Bruce

     /  October 28, 2015

    Per part VIII of HB255, which was passed by the NCGA this sumemr, it is illegal for Inspection Department revenues to be used for anything other than the support of inspection activities.
    It reads:
    SECTION 7.1. G.S. 153A-354 reads as rewritten:
    Ҥ 153A-354. Financial support.
    A county may appropriate any available funds for the support of its inspection department.
    It may provide for paying inspectors fixed salaries, or it may reimburse them for their services
    by paying over part or all of any fees collected. It may fix reasonable fees for issuing permits,
    for inspections, and for other services of the inspection department. All fees collected under the
    authority set forth in this section shall be used for support of the administration and activities of
    the inspection department and for no other purpose.”
    SECTION 7.2. G.S. 160A-414 reads as rewritten:
    Ҥ 160A-414. Financial support.
    The city council may appropriate for the support of the inspection department any funds
    that it deems necessary. It may provide for paying inspectors fixed salaries or it may reimburse
    them for their services by paying over part or all of any fees collected. It shall have power to fix
    reasonable fees for issuance of permits, inspections, and other services of the inspection
    department. All fees collected under the authority set forth in this section shall be used for
    support of the administration and activities of the inspection department and for no other

  6. many

     /  October 28, 2015

    Dan, Thank you. It seems as if the intent of the NCLeg is that the inspections department be self-funded. I also see language expressly allowing additional appropriations.

    If in fact Chapel Hill is slower; then does anyone know what the different from other more responsive townships is? Is it specific to one area such as commercial or residential, or perhaps a segment, health, safety, storm water, electrical, plumbing etc.? Is anyone tracking metrics, or do experienced inspectors have a “gut feel” for the reasons?

    The higher permit fees would lead one to conclude this issue is not money. If as Deborah suggests it is workload, could it be that form based coding has simplified certain areas but added complexity or gaps in others?

    The changes made by Mary Jane Nirdlinger that Nancy enumerated seem logical and necessary but missing is a true explanation of where the problem areas are. Not sure about Chapel Hill Township, but experience tell me that many government departments are “siloed” and have inconsistent cross departmental communications leading to gaps in requirements, redundancies and process that result in delays or misses.