In Phillip Howard's book; "The Death of Common Sense," he gives an example of how Mother Teresa's missionaries wanted to establish a soup kitchen and shelter for homeless people in an abandoned building they obtained for $1. After two years of public hearings, they finally get to the end of approvals to be told they had to provide an elevator at an additional cost of $100,000. They regretfully gave up and said the money would be better spent on providing sandwiches from the sidewalk.
Many residents rarely encounter the building and planning process where they live. They may get involved if they receive a notice about a zoning change or a neighbor wants to do something with their property. Or you may have a friend in the construction trades that has a horror story about current code process.
Architects and builders are on the front lines working with government agencies to help people get permits for their project. There is the old architectural adage that "form follows function." However, it seems that "form follows financing" is more like it these days. Why do buildings look the way they do? Getting a building completed can be a complex balancing act between owner desires, codes, schedules, neighborhoods, environment, costs, energy, financing and design. Compromises happen. The other significant factor is time.
The American Institute of Architects commissioned a study with Price Waterhouse Coppers to determine the impacts to our community when the permit process is delayed. A simple 15 percent decrease in permit time could add 1 percent to the rate of return, reduce rents and get tax dollars to cities three months faster.
An average house building permit fee in Bellingham is $25,000 and takes about 28 days. (To be fair, the actual building permit is only about $1,500. The rest includes impact fees such as utilites, stormwater, parks, schools, traffic, etc.) In Whatcom County it's an average of $1,500 and one day. Guess where much of the growth is happening?
There is a general desire for many to live close-in for a walkable lifestyle to services. But why does it cost more to live in town? Many impact fees are about the same for a small apartment as they are for an expensive large home. It is very difficult to encourage affordable housing prices when large impact fees are the same.
In 2011, the Northwest chapter of the American Institute of Architects started a discussion with some council members about the effect and validity of impact fees on affordable housing and commercial business. These fees are optional. The goal is to change fees, perhaps in target areas using "smart growth" strategies. The American Institute of Architects has been advocating for streamlined permit process so that we can protect the environment with architect self-certifications, shared jurisdictional review, electronic code submittals and allowing for more flexibility to meet intent of zoning codes.
We all want to see beautiful buildings and environmental protection, including most developers. It is important to understand that developers do not cause growth. You do. If the need is not there, it does not get financed. Growth is happening, that is why we have codes and regulations to deal with it better.
The City of Bellingham's zoning code is over 674 pages. It was adopted in 1982, (32 years ago!) with many amendments. The code in Seaside, Florida, is one 11-by-17 poster! City planners are trying to do their best within a broken system of contradictions, redundancies and linear, long processes. It is frustrating for everyone. Current regulations may not allow us to do the right thing. So, what can we do to help this broken system to get a better outcome for us all?
Well, it is starting to change as we speak.
Bellingham is finally replacing a 15-year-old software program for faster permit processing. In process, is a new Comprehensive Plan and eventually new zoning, self-certification and e-code processing with noticeably better customer service. Review times may be cut in half, so that we can put resources where we want them, to help enhance the quality of the built environment with a better economic future. Soon, it could be easier to help the homeless, and do the right thing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Architect David E. Christensen is president of the Northwest chapter American Institute of Architects, which serves Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties.