Sunday, April 14, 2024

Could it be true? Boca’s building permit process is shaping up

Building boom and that pesky permit process

On Tuesday afternoon, the first floor lobby of Boca Raton City Hall was happy-hour crowded. These were contractors, however, and they held plans, not drinks.

Activity at those tables is a leading local economic indicator. According to the city, the monthly value of contracts submitted was up almost 64 percent from a year ago for the three months ending June 30. A year ago, the average was $17.8 million. This year, it’s $29 million.

Those numbers especially matter to the most important new city employee in some time. That would be Ty Harris, director of the Development Services Department. Anyone who wants to build something in Boca Raton must go through the department. It reviews major projects, issues permits and conducts inspections. And everyone in Boca loves to gripe about the department, from the people who deal in multi-million-dollar projects to the couples who want to remodel a bathroom.

For the last two years, the city council has made faster, friendlier permitting a priority. Yet the department had gone without a permanent director from April 2014, when John Hixenbaugh resigned, until Harris began in July.

Harris can report some progress, for which he said, “I am not taking credit,” given his short time with the city. According to his numbers, the time from application to approval for a single-family home has gone from 62 days a year ago to 53 days. For commercial interior work, it’s down to 52 days from 63. Getting a permit for reroofing a home takes eight days, down from 12.

To which those contractors likely would say, “Nice start.” Harris would agree. For investors in large projects, longer waits cost them money. For contractors, delay causes scheduling problems, which aggravates their customers. For homeowners, longer waits make them wonder where their tax money is going.

The new budget, which takes effect today, will help. It includes money to hire a handful of new building inspectors. Demand for inspections is rising along with the value of contracts. In addition, the city is encouraging online filing of permit applications. Email traffic regarding permit questions is up 1,000 percent.

Another change is newer. If there’s a problem with an application that arrives online, such as missing documents, the city calls the applicant after six days to explain the problem, rather than just reject the application and let it sit. “Obviously, if someone comes in” for an application, Harris said, “we have more face-to-face time” to answer questions. Just as obviously, if the city wants more people to apply electronically, there must be more communication. Some people could lose a month, Harris said, wrongly assuming that the application is complete.

That change grew out of focus groups that Mike Fichera, the city’s chief building official, held with contractors and employees. Harris wants employees to define their roles to the point where “nobody is doing work that’s supposed to be done by somebody else.”

Harris may import an idea from his previous job in Charlotte County, on Florida’s west coast. There, an “ombudsman” helped owner-builders, who submit a high percentage of applications but aren’t professionals. “They’ve been to Home Depot, by gosh, and sat through a couple of the classes and say, ‘Let’s try it.’ Those are the folks that need the most hand-holding.” Assigning one staffer sped things up overall.

Then there’s the PR potential from greater efficiency. Such people might have “a neutral opinion” of the building department, Harris said, “but I guarantee you that when they finish, they’re going to have an opinion.”

At the other end of the department’s work are the major projects that draw public attention. Boca being Boca, any talk of “streamlining” such permits can give some residents heartburn.

“When we talk about streamlining there,” Harris said, “it’s a completely different animal than what we’re talking about with the building department. Planning and zoning, we implement policy. We don’t make policy. Policy is made on the third floor (where the mayor and city council members have their offices.)”

Still, major projects require lots of staff time. Just as with owner-builders, applications may be incomplete. Just like homeowners, developers don’t want to wait longer than necessary for answers.

Harris is contemplating a “pre-application” form. Developers of any project needing review by one or more boards—planning and zoning, zoning board of adjustment—first would meet with a city planner to list on one form all the documents the project will need. “Those,” Harris said, “are the complicated ones.” There is a draft, and Harris hopes to have the form ready by the end of the year.

“A lot of people need to have eyes on it,” and he also wants feedback from those who appear regularly before the council on development applications. But does Harris see a need to eliminate any actual steps in the development approval process? “No.”

Though he acknowledges that delays can arise when the city is understaffed at key positions—a traffic engineer just left for a job in Gainesville—Harris disputes the idea that just hiring more people will make things work better. “We’ve got to fix the process. I can’t throw bodies at it. We’ve got to fix it. And everybody knows it.”

Atlantic Crossing lawsuit

The developers of Atlantic Crossing just pressed the accelerator harder in their game of legal chicken with Delray Beach.

In a 36-page June lawsuit, the developers accused the city of wrongly delaying final approval of a site plan for the mixed-use project on two blocks west of Veterans Park. Last Friday, an amended, 133-page lawsuit restated those accusations and demanded “in excess of $25 million” for damages resulting from “constitutionally illicit” actions.

All this over a road.

A few months ago, Mayor Cary Glickstein was meeting with Columbus, Ohio-based Edward Companies in hopes of working out a deal under which the developers would restore to their site plan an access road from the west side of the project. The main entrance would be on Northeast Seventh Avenue. The road was on the original site plan, but in January 2014 the city commission approved a new plan without the road.

Even after the developers first sued in June, the commission heard a presentation from the city’s traffic consultant about how the road could be added back. But the discussion stalled. A developer representative’s letter in August came off as trying to force the city to capitulate. The commission responded, in essence, by stating the city’s right to take back roadways it has abandoned for the project. Now comes the more threatening lawsuit.

One could suspect that the developers have become wary, perceiving that some in the city still believe that Delray could stop the whole project. Such an attempt strikes me as extremely risky. The developers’ new lawyer is Brian Seymour, of the Gunster firm, who specializes in land use. One doesn’t need a law degree, though, to recognize that the commission has approved the project and the site plan, even if some commissioners believe that the issue was not laid out clearly last year.

At the same time, it seems unlikely that restoring the road would greatly compromise Atlantic Crossing. Doing so also would help the public image of a project that has been controversial from the start.

Parties have backed away from tougher language than this on development matters. But it’s getting late.

Campaign contributions

An interesting early campaign contribution shows up in the account of a candidate for property appraiser.

That would be Palm Beach County Commissioner Shelley Vana, who’s term-limited next year. She has no background in assessing property; she worked in education before running for the Legislature, and after that the commission. Property Appraiser Gary Nikolits is retiring in 2016, which will be after 24 years in office. His deputy, Dorothy Jacks, is running for the job.

On June 30, Vana got a $1,000 contribution—the legal limit —from Mizner Trail Golf Club Ltd. That is an entity of Boca Raton-based Compson Associates. Last year, Vana voted with the commission majority to allow Mizner Trail Golf Club to develop the former golf course of the same name, in Boca Del Mar. Residents opposed the project, and filed an unsuccessful legal challenge. The roughly 130-acre site, with that approval for 252 homes, is now for sale.

One could theorize that Compson, which owns other properties, would want to support whoever becomes appraiser. But according to contribution records through Sept. 10, neither Mizner Trail Golf Club nor any Compson entity has donated to Jacks. During her 2012 campaign, Vana received $2,000 from Compson-affiliated entities.

About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.


Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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