ADDITIONAL – The pandemic made it imperative for cities to get digital permitting systems fully operational to meet the needs of developers and builders.
And soon after the start of the pandemic, the region saw a record number of construction starts that put the new systems to the test.
Development leaders representing Dallas, Irving, Celina and Denton discussed the challenges they faced in getting projects approved over the past three years during a recent panel discussion hosted by the Dallas Builders Association in Addison.
“We were forced to become more efficient, more efficient, and city leadership really had no choice in that,” said Scott McDonald, director of development services for the city of Denton.
Irving had a digital system in place, but city staff realized they needed something better, so they moved to newer software in a transition that went seamlessly, said Wayne Snell, the city’s director of inspections.
“Now we’re running a lot faster,” Snell said. “We are able to move things through the process. We are able to communicate with other departments in a very efficient way.”
Celina’s development process has been digital since 2008, but as the city grew rapidly during the pandemic, staff became “faster and better” at handling permits, said Dustin McAfee, the city’s executive director of development services.
“We are paperless and have been for years,” McAfee said. “COVID only allowed Celina to fine-tune their processes and get better at what we do. I couldn’t imagine it being paper trying to transition to a more digital age during COVID. For me, it would have been very painful and very challenging to experience.”
Trouble in Dallas
With that, the panel’s moderator, Dallas Builders Association CEO Phil Crone, turned to Sam Eskander, assistant director of land development for the city of Dallas, where delays in approvals to build and rebuild have persisted for years.
“Talk about being painful, that’s what we went through,” Eskander said. “Before COVID, everything was submitted on paper, paper submissions.”
Eskander said developers and contractors used to line up outside the door from 4 a.m. to get permits.
“It looked like Best Buy on Black Friday,” he said. “I mean, literally, the line went around the building, waiting to get a permit, hoping they could get a permit that same day.”
When the pandemic started, the city was already working with a software company called ProjectDox to track and process permits. Eskander said the city had to put it in full force, even though it wasn’t ready.
“We just had to make it work,” he said, adding that the switch made it impossible for developers to get a same-day permit. – It hurt a lot of people.
After COVID, the city made many improvements, Eskander said, including bringing back same-day permits when applicants schedule an appointment, creating new teams to help the development community and reducing permit review time. The average processing time for residence permits in January was three working days, he said.
Crone, the moderator, said in an email that everyone he knows who has applied for a permit in Dallas recently has been able to get it within two weeks, in part because of the improvements the city has made, but also because of the significant the reduction in activity due to the correction in the housing market.
“Sam and the other department heads who have shown empathy and thrown themselves into the problem, they’ve owned it, they feel about it, and they’ve done the best they can to work on it,” Crone said at the event. “And we still have a long way to go, but that has contributed to a lot of the improvements we’ve seen.”
Eskander brought up an example of dysfunction in Dallas’ system. Builders have recently faced problems around water infrastructure. They may only find out during construction that an area lacks fire hydrants or a water line, when city staff are supposed to catch such problems before permits are issued, he said.
“There are builders who catch it during their due diligence, and there are other builders who catch it in the middle of construction,” he said. “Due to staff turnover, new employees were not trained and do not understand, do not know what to look for.”
Eskander said his department has set up meetings with the water utilities, code compliance, public works and planning and city attorney offices to address issues facing his department and the developers and gain a better understanding of how problems can be resolved.
“Anytime your issues are brought to our attention, we address them,” Eskander said. “We are discussing. We are trying to find solutions to these problems so they don’t happen again.”
In a market with rising interest rates and construction costs, Crone said it’s important for builders and developers to know what kind of costs and delays they will face at the city level before a project starts.
“It has been frustrating with builders and developers almost playing, as I have characterized it, ‘infrastructure roulette’, or almost like spinning a Wheel of Fortune wheels because some will get caught and land in bankruptcy, and others will come through and not have any problems, he said.
In a separate panel of homebuilders and developers, Adam Auensen of Dallas-based apartment developer Tonti Properties said Dallas’ speed limit could be worse.
“I will defend Dallas and their permit processing timeline because we are building on the East Coast,” Auensen said. “We just got a stand-alone swimming pool permit nine months after applying for it on a property outside of Raleigh, North Carolina.”
City departments have also faced challenges in recruiting staff to help ease the burden. McDonald said private-sector consulting firms put enormous pressure on city governments when hiring, “gobbling up everyone they can.”
“It’s not as attractive to go to municipal government, so we have to eventually recruit greens and build them, so we have an environment where we can promote the training, where we can expand the knowledge base,” he said.
Denton’s McDonald said his city now offers a flexible hybrid plan as the younger, newer job-seeking demographic has a different mindset about work.
“Creating an environment that allows people to be flexible in their schedule and find a work-life balance is critical,” he said.
Dallas has also had difficulty hiring, Eskander said.
– We have conducted a number of job fairs. We have gone to universities with business cards ready to hand out and recruit,” he said. “It took us eight months to finally get fully staffed on the housing side.”