Developers have long complained about Asheville’s permitting process, and critics say their concerns were underscored this summer when Chris Brown dropped plans for a $2 million indoor trampoline park.
City officials say they’re working hard to improve efficiency but have been hampered by a construction boom amid a serious shortage of qualified employees.
“With all the new development that’s occurring, sometimes it’s hard to keep up with it at a breakneck pace,” says Jason Nortz, the Development Services Department’s interim director since June.
Brown, who owns Velocity Air Sports, says he’d planned to develop the trampoline facility in a building on Sweeten Creek Road but scuttled the project in favor of more business-friendly cities.
“With all due respect, Asheville is the most difficult city I have ever experienced,” Brown wrote in an August email to City Manager Gary Jackson. “We could not get basic answers to our key concerns for almost two months. In my industry, time is money, and I was left with no alternative but to walk away from Asheville and pursue more business-friendly areas.
“I simply couldn’t risk more time and effort when the same amount of time and effort in other cities produces better results,” he wrote. “I’m not used to having issues getting a green light to proceed.”
Nortz acknowledges that the department should have handled Brown’s application more promptly, saying, “We clearly recognize the need to improve our process, and we’re working on that.” Recent efforts include hiring more permitting staff and creating an advisory group that will recommend further ways to improve.
Not everyone is unhappy with the city’s performance, however. “I really haven’t had a problem there,” says longtime local developer John Spake of Spake Real Estate. “I think it’s easy to beat up on staff: They have a tough job. There’s a lot of construction going on now. We’ve had our disagreements at times, but we’ve always been able to work them out.”
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of development getting done in the city. The value of current construction in Asheville jumped from about $100 million a year four years ago to about $800 million last year, according to the city’s permit database.
That, though, is part of the problem, says Nortz. “We’re seeing a tremendous amount of high-end development, and it takes a lot of resources on our end to get it up from the beginning stages of site development to the plan review process, through the inspection process, all the way to final occupancy.”
The scale of these projects is also a factor, he notes. “It’s not just little mom-and-pop type developments. We’re talking about numerous hotels, numerous breweries, large apartment complexes — things that take a of time and resources to review and approve.”
Brown says he’s developed 16 such parks in Nevada, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. He says he invests an average of $1.8 million in each facility, which employs 40 to 50 people.
“The indoor trampoline park industry is a very fast-growth segment whereby allocation of capital and allocation of time are the key decision points,” he explained in his August email. “I started looking at Asheville and Charleston [South Carolina] for potential locations in March and was able to reach letters of intent on buildings in both cities in late April.”
In the email, Brown said he’d hired an architect to develop preliminary plans for the Asheville facility and had scheduled a meeting with city officials to facilitate the development process. The developer, building owner and others involved in the project “provided any and all requested data and were still not able to receive a definitive commitment from the city as to their interpretation of our use/code analysis” until July 8.
In Charleston, on the other hand, it took one meeting in mid-May and “We were welcomed with open arms.” Brown says he received a permit to start construction on June 9 and opened the facility July 31.
“In the lag time spent trying to get traction with the city of Asheville, I started looking in Jacksonville, Florida,” he wrote. “During that time, I was able to locate a building, negotiate a lease and have a meeting with city officials in which I received commitments from them as to their requirements and interpretations on our use.”
An anti-business attitude?
Longtime Asheville businessman Jerry Sternberg, who owns the building where Brown wanted to locate his facility, blames both an inefficient permit office staff and what he sees as city officials’ anti-business attitude.
“We spend a lot of money enticing businesses to come to Asheville,” says Sternberg. “We tell them how business-friendly we are, and here’s a guy with $2 million to spend and the possible employment of 50 people. So we lost a $2 million industry here only because of lack of being reasonable and pragmatic and getting the job done. They go through all this salesmanship with the Chamber and economic development and paint this rosy picture, and once you walk into City Hall, it’s like walking into a kangaroo court.”
A lot of residents who moved here from other cities, says Sternberg, an Asheville native, “want to raise the drawbridge. Many of them end up in policymaking positions and certainly are active voters, especially among the retired people. They really are more comfortable if the Planning Department does not operate efficiently, because that slows down growth and stops what they consider overcrowding.”
No hidden agenda
But Mayor Esther Manheimer says the permitting process has nothing to do with city policies on the amount and type of development allowed.
“I don’t think … staff is obstructing applicants who are proposing to do projects that are permitted under our zoning code,” she says. “The permitting center is not a place where we, as a city, determine which is appropriate growth and development in Asheville. It is supposed to be a place where a customer can interact with city staff regarding an application for something they want to do, and they should receive appropriate service. So long as the proposed use is permitted under the zoning ordinance, then that system needs to work.”
In the case of Velocity Air Sports, she concedes, “We fell down on the job. I don’t get a sense that that’s reflective of the overall experience for folks interacting with the permitting center. That’s no judgment on whether or not Asheville wants a trampoline facility: It’s our job to be responsive. You need to constantly address your customer experience; it’s going to be an evolving process.”
The mayor, though, says she generally gets positive feedback from builders and architects who regularly work with the permitting office: It’s those new to the process who have a hard time.
“There really are a lot of regulations to navigate, mostly state regulations that the city is charged with imposing on folks,” says Manheimer. “If you’ve never done it before, each turn is a surprise, and it’s frustrating and time-consuming. That’s where the challenge is.”
A long-running issue
Efforts to streamline Asheville’s permitting process began in 2009 when the city launched a one-stop shop in the Public Works Building on South Charlotte Street. It was staffed by representatives from the five departments that issue construction permits: Public Works, Planning and Development, Water Engineering, Building Safety and the Fire Department.
Concerns remained, however, and last year, the Mayor’s Development Task Force was formed to come up with recommendations. Composed of builders, architects, business owners and other concerned parties, the group released its report in February.
Meanwhile, the Development Customer Advisory Group, charged with advising the department on ways to improve service, held its first meeting last month.
In the past four years, notes Nortz, the permit office has doubled in size (to 57 workers), but several vacancies remain. The number of permit facilitators has been doubled, to eight.
“Most of the summer, we were operating at half that capacity,” he explains. “They’re the first line of defense when people come in to ask questions and apply for permits. That’s a huge positive for us, because obviously the more people we have up front, the quicker we can get to people, and the less time they’re sitting there waiting.”
But finding and retaining enough qualified workers has been difficult.
“The development industry,” says Nortz, “has the ability to pay more. We just can’t compete with that. We try to compete in other ways, in terms of our benefits and sometimes our flexible work schedules, but there’s only so much you can do when you work for the government. When you have less staff, it affects morale, it affects performance, it affects wait times.”
In August, he notes, the department’s schedule was changed. Instead of being open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, it now operates 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“We’re not seeing any more people per week, but we are seeing the amount of people per day spread out more evenly,” he reports, adding, “I think it’s been well received by customers.”
The department has also implemented an online dashboard report that shows monthly construction stats, including the number of permits issued and applied for as well as the number of inspections. Also in the works, says Nortz, are a software upgrade enabling the public to apply for and check the status of permits, and a “standard operating procedures manual” for the department.
Nonetheless, says Sternberg, a member of the advisory group, “Once a developer gets his loan, gets his plans together, buys his land and finally walks into City Hall to start the permitting process, he’s a hostage. He has to do everything they tell him to do, and if he makes any waves at all, they will find a way to slow him down. He’s stuck, and it appears that some of the people in that department understand that rather well, and it’s a powerful place for them to be.”
John Spake, on the other hand, says his experience with the permitting office has been generally positive. He’s a partner in developing City Centre, a 64,000-square-foot office building, 150-room hotel and 254-space parking garage now under construction on 2.4 acres at the corner of College and South Charlotte streets. So far, says Spake, the project has progressed without a hiccup, and the contractor is two and a half months ahead of schedule.
Getting permit approvals in a timely manner hasn’t been an issue, he says. And like Manheimer, Spake feels that being familiar with the system helps.
“My experience is, if you do your homework and you do your pre-submittal meetings and you keep staff involved while you’re designing your plans, you don’t have many surprises,” he reports. “If you just showed up one day with your plans and hadn’t talked to staff, and especially if you’re from outside the market and don’t know the expectations of staff, then I can see that being a problem.”
But Mike Plemmons, executive director of the Council of Independent Business Owners, says, “A lot of businesses have complained to us about the process. They really hated going to the department at times, because they couldn’t get answers or they thought they were being stonewalled. We’re concerned that the city loses some real good development opportunities due to some archaic thought processes. The processes they’ve had in the past have just delayed everything.”
Plemmons, however, says he’s encouraged by the recent efforts to improve the department.
“In the city’s defense, they’ve been training people and trying to make it work,” he observes. “We’re watching the process and trying to provide input where we can. We know they’ve had a lot of problems, and we think the city wants to change that. Hopefully, with the efforts they’ve been doing, they’re going to overcome some of that.”
Asheville architect Jane Mathews, who serves on the new advisory group, shares that optimism. “I think the fact that they have a group of people who … can be a sounding board to how those changes work or don’t work is a really positive aspect,” she says.
Still, Mathews would like to see the department upgrade its technology so architectural drawings can be submitted electronically.
“We bring in big sets of drawings, multiple copies,” she explains. “It gets to be a lot of paper. There’s a pent-up desire on the part of architects and probably the construction community to move to a digital format.”
Mathews also dislikes having to wait for an hour or more in the permitting office while a staff member reviews an application and enters the information into a computer.
“I like to think that we’re educated enough to have completed a thorough review prior to bringing it in,” she says. “We shouldn’t have to sit while the information is being entered and checked. That’s not a good use of my time and my clients’ costs. It’s obvious that there are people who bring in incomplete sets; maybe that’s better handled by a different process.”
Another advisory group member, Karl Koon of Asheville Oil Co., says he was encouraged by what he heard at the first meeting.
“We need to work as partners in ensuring good development in Asheville and not any type of adversarial relationship, or where it’s an attempt to either stop or slow down development,” he says. “We seem to all understand a common desire to see quality development in the area.”
Koon says he’d like to see more done to educate homeowners about the Development Services Department’s requirements.
“In some cases, they’ve been instructed to come down and pull a permit after they’ve actually started doing something at their house — not even aware that they needed to get permission to have it done,” he notes.
Fellow advisory group member Ron Duyck of Duyck Construction Co. says his biggest concern is the four to six weeks it typically takes for a permit application to be reviewed.
“Time is an issue for all of us, from the architect to the contractor,” says Duyck. “It makes it difficult for us to coordinate our projects, a start time, so we can add to our volume of work.”
But Duyck, too, says he’s optimistic that improvements can be made. “I think we have the correct people on board, and I think the staff has bought into this opportunity. It sounds as if they have, anyway.”