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Backlog of permits creates building logjam in Duluth

August usually finds builders bustling to make the most of the Northland's short summer, but Michelle LeBeau, executive director of Women in Construction, has been laying off crew members in Duluth.

August usually finds builders bustling to make the most of the Northland's short summer, but Michelle LeBeau, executive director of Women in Construction, has been laying off crew members in Duluth.

As of the past week, LeBeau had sent eight workers home and was preparing to let go as many as four more.

The firm has plenty of work. That's not the problem.

What Women in Construction needs is building permits.

On Friday, LeBeau finally obtained a building permit for which she had submitted plans July 16. She said the company may not be able to recall workers for another couple weeks, as the site still must be prepared for the construction of a single-family home.

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City building officials are examining drawings for projects filed July 17. That means the wait for an initial review of a building plan is about 5½ weeks. As of Friday, 61 plans still are in line, awaiting first review.

LeBeau doesn't fault the staff of Duluth's building safety department for the backlog.

"I think they're understaffed and overworked," she said.

Andy Peterson, public policy director for the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, said he has received numerous complaints from other developers and builders about permit delays.

"I get up to 10 calls per week on this issue," he said. "People are frustrated, but they don't want to say anything directly to the city because they are afraid of retribution."

Instead, Peterson said many of these companies ask the chamber to register their concerns about the department anonymously, rather than risk having their plans held up even longer in retaliation for complaints made to city administration.

In addition to inconveniencing builders, Peterson said the delays damage Duluth's reputation as a business-friendly community.

"It has been a chronic frustration for me and a lot of other folks," Peterson said.

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Kirby Wood said that plans for a new garage and expansion of his Congdon home, submitted to the city on July 18, still are awaiting review.

"If it takes too much longer, it's going to be hard to get the work done and the landscaping finished before winter," he said.

Chuck Duvall, a disabled Vietnam veteran, said his plans for a new prefabricated home in Gary-New Duluth have been stymied. He filed his paperwork on July 26, and given the slow pace of permitting, Duvall is concerned about whether the home will be ready for occupancy by the end of September, when he has agreed to give up his apartment.

"The idea of finding myself homeless is really stressing me out," he said.

City Building Official Duane Lasley said that ideally, people would face no more than a two-week wait for an initial review of their permit application. But he said that staff members are severely overburdened.

Lasley cited a 1998 review of Duluth's building safety operations by the Minnesota Building Code and Standards Division indicating that the city had about one-third of the staffing it needed to keep pace with plan reviews.

Since that time, Duluth has hired an additional person, bringing its plan review staffing to two.

That briefly may have put the city in better stead, but the volume of work the building safety department handles has increased sharply in the past decade. In 1998, Duluth saw $60 million in construction compared with $233 million in 2006, a record year.

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With five plan reviewers, Rochester, Minn., has more than twice the review staff of Duluth. But Rochester issued 3,100 building permits in 2006 -- 50 percent more than the 2,080 Duluth did that year.

Ron Boose, Rochester's director of building safety, said the lead time for residential permits in his city is about one week. Some reviews of commercial development plans are running slightly farther behind.

Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson acknowledged the city's building safety department is understaffed but said he won't hire more employees until the issue of health care benefits for retired city employees is resolved. He explained that he doesn't want to add to the city's

$309 million retiree health care liability.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents most workers in Duluth's building safety department, remains in contract negotiations with the city. Bergson called on union leaders to bring the administration's latest offer to its members for a vote.

Mary Theurer, a field director for AFSCME Council 5, said the administration, not the union, bears responsibility for inadequately staffing City Hall.

"Mayor Bergson needs to take responsibility rather than blaming AFSCME," she said. "We have agreed to a defined contribution for new hires. All he [Bergson] needs to do is sign that agreement, and he will be in a position to hire new people."

Inadequate staffing in the building department isn't the only source of delays, Lasley said.

"Our biggest frustration is that people don't read the information we provide and don't do what they need to do to get their plans approved. That's where the backlog is," he said.

If people would simply spend more time at the outset, making sure their drawings complied with guidelines the city provides to building permit applicants, Lasley thinks wait times could be reduced dramatically.

"If we didn't have to look at any project more than twice, we wouldn't have a backlog right now," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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