A bill requiring the city to process less complicated building permits within 60 days won preliminary approval from a City Council committee Thursday after a parade of builders, contractors, engineers and architects aired complaints about how the delays are hurting their businesses.
Under Bill 64, introduced by Council Chairman Ernie Martin, the Department of Planning and Permitting would be required to process applications for one- and two-family dwellings within 60 days of receiving them.
Before the committee meeting about 100 members of the Building Industry Association of Hawaii and others who do home construction work held a rally in front of Honolulu Hale. Armed with signs urging Council members to support the bill, they chanted, “Permits now!”
Inside, Atlas Building Vice President Rodney Kim said he has 53 carpenters on staff currently, down from 83 last year, a situation caused by the delays in permit processing. “That’s 30 families that now are under unemployment and not getting paychecks on Fridays.”
The delays adversely affect not only homebuilders, but those with whom they do business with, including “the people we buy lumber from, the people we buy tiles from, countertops, toilets, just regular doorknobs,” Kim said.
He said his company has $30 million in jobs waiting to be done. “We are booked until September with jobs; we just don’t have the permits to do it.”
Support for workers
Gladys Quinto Marrone, Building Industry Association of Hawaii chief executive officer, said her members empathize with DPP employees and have tried to offer support by backing an increase in inspector and plan-checker positions and help provide DPP “a workforce pipeline” of community college students interested in the industry.
But not enough is being done, she said. “The industry is about to implode if this is not fixed.”
Even the 60-day processing time proposed in the bill “is on the high side” when compared with other jurisdictions in the U.S., Marrone said.
Marshall Hickox, president and owner of Homeworks Construction, said the average processing time for a common building permit is about nine months or longer.
If DPP has a problem filling plan-checker and inspector positions, there’s likely a need to increase the pay, Hickox said. “They’re waiting to fill positions at a pay rate, at a skill level that isn’t going to happen.”
General contractor J.R. Moorhead said it’s not uncommon for him to wait six months for a permit to redo a shower.
Because the threshold for requiring a building is so low, a minimum of $1,000 of work, “it encourages people to go around the permitting process” and just build without a permit, he said.
“It also encourages people to go with unlicensed contractors,” Moorhead said. “It costs a lot of money to be licensed and insured.”
Lauren Hudson, a civil engineer and permit router, said the delays “almost put me out of business.”
While there are some honest and competent DPP supervisors and plan reviewers, she said, she also believes “gifts and favoritism” play roles in who gets permits. She’s refused multiple requests from clients to “pay a gift to a friend inside DPP to have their permits pass through,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to pay a civil servant a gift to do their job,” she said.
She said she sees one fellow permit router eating lunch with DPP employees in an area typically closed off to the public, someone who appears to obtain permits more quickly than she does.
DPP Acting Director Kathy Sokugawa said after the meeting that she knows of only one current investigation into accusations into an employee accepting a bribe. There’ve been no other instances that she knows of, simply rumors without any specifics or solid evidence, she said.
Anyone in the public with knowledge of wrongdoing should contact Honolulu police, while city employees can contact an “integrity hotline” if they suspect illegal or improper actions by colleagues, she said.
Most of those who spoke at the meeting supported the bill, but there also was a significant number of people submitting written testimony opposing it.
Many said they worry the bill will make it too easy for unscrupulous builders, including those who build controversial large-scale or “monster” houses, to obtain permits.
Manoa resident Robert Fox, who has criticized DPP for allowing the proliferation of monster houses unimpeded, said the bill is “treating a symptom and not the cause.”
DPP employees aren’t educated or properly trained to handle the permitting workload, and he suggested that a nationwide search take place to hire a new DPP director.
Like Hudson, Fox said his research shows that some builders appear to be getting permits more quickly than others.
He said he opposes the idea of a project’s architect or plan maker to be the final inspector for a permit. “A third-party review is not a good idea,” he said. “You’re taking the word of the architect that everything is OK at the end of the building … and the city stamps it without any comment, without any correction, without any inspection.”
The bill calls for the expedited processing time frame to be used for those building one- and two-family dwellings and who choose to use the one-time review process, where in exchange for having completed plans reviewed just once, thereby eliminating a lengthy exchange, the homeowner agrees to abide by any decisions made by DPP building officials.
Applications would need to be prepared and stamped by a licensed professional engineer or architect who has not had a building permit application rejected more than twice within the previous two months.
Sokugawa said DPP is “philosophically” not opposed to the bill. “I think we have some little questions about how it gets implemented, but we can talk about that.”
A confluence of issues have led to longer permit processing times, including a constantly increasing series of code requirements and other programs that place more work on those reviewing plans, as well as difficulty finding and keeping plan check reviewers. Four were recently hired but there are currently five vacancies, DPP officials said.
Funding for training would help, Sokugawa said, as well as a program now being developed that would provide promotional steps to positions with higher pay and more responsibility.
Council Zoning Chairwoman Kymberly Pine apologized to those who testified in support. “I can’t believe people are laying people off in a good economy because of government,” she said.
In a related action the committee voted to support creating Resolution 18-208, establishing a four-person subcommittee to investigate the delays in processing building permits.