How much regulation is too much?

City policymakers look to go light on red tape
Sep. 08, 2013 @ 04:47 PM

In the world of business, regulation can be a dirty word.
High Point leaders say they’re keenly aware of this, and are working to ensure the city’s policies don’t stifle new investment.
This is playing out in an ongoing policy debate among the City Council, which is overseeing two major initiatives that everyone hopes will result in a faster, more efficient review and approval project for commercial and residential projects.
One is a major upgrade to the Planning & Development Department’s software system that is widely expected to streamline things. The other is an overhaul of the city’s development ordinance.
Both are expected to be implemented by the middle part of 2014.
In the meantime, some argue that the city already has too much red tape in place that could be eliminated.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the council’s recent debate over whether to add to the city’s building inspections staff.
City officials, in their efforts to improve building inspections procedures, have proposed spending $88,000 in hold harmless reimbursement funds from the state to fill two positions — one a plan reviewer and the other a permit specialist.
Currently, 81 percent of residential plans submitted to the city are reviewed in an average of 3.6 days, while 96 percent of commercial plans are reviewed in an average of 7.4 days.
The city’s goal is to reduce the average residential plan review time to no more than two days and to maintain the average commercial plan review time at no more than 10 days. To do this, officials argue, additional personnel is needed.
City Manager Strib Boynton said more manpower is needed to review plans for commercial projects in making sure they comply with various state and local codes.
“That’s where the workload is, and that’s where the complaints come from,” he said.
City leaders say they are reluctant to approve the request for fear that it would add to the layers of approval that residential contractors have to go through. Some argue that it’s not necessary for the city to require builders to undergo what amounts to a second review after they’ve already submitted one set of plans.
They point to Winston-Salem, which does not require an additional review.
“Residential plan review is not required by law. Winston doesn’t do it,” said Councilman Jay Wagner. “It puts us at a competitive disadvantage. I mean, the houses aren’t falling down in Winston.”
It’s not that simple, according to city officials.
While contractors may know what they want to do on a given project, they often don’t know what state building codes may require them to do. It saves them time and money to tell them the requirements up front before they obtain permits for a given job, officials said.
“You don’t want to hear that when you’re out in the field and the mechanical inspector comes out there and tells you you’ve got to change your duct work out or you’ve got to change the system out and you didn’t anticipate this cost,” said Planning & Development Director Lee Burnette. “That’s why plan review is done.”
City leaders said other local jurisdictions can provide faster turnaround time on permits.
“If I can get done in 90 minutes in Davidson County or Winston-Salem and it takes three days here, to me that’s an unreasonable amount of time,” said Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall.
The council has not acted on the request for additional staff, electing to move it to one of its committees for further consideration.
“This will probably make residential builders mad, but if 81 percent of plans are reviewed in an average of 3.6 days, I don’t think that’s particularly excessive,” said Councilwoman Becky Smothers.