City of Austin works to relieve bottleneck of building permits, update process

Council OKs increased staffing, revision of fee structure

The City of Austin is increasing efforts to address a backlog in the building permit process because of hundreds of planned developments as the city continues its rapid growth.

Tammy Counts, property manager at Reit Management & Research, has worked in commercial real estate in Austin for 13 years. She said the backlog is causing grief for her clients.

Counts said she has seen the permit approval process take two months when it normally takes about two or three weeks. That affects larger clients and tenants who have to make sure their schedule and budget allow for the additional wait time and associated costs.

"So that impact becomes greater in a sense," she said. "This has been happening since the last quarter of last year."

In an effort to address the backlog, the Austin City Council approved June 14 the hiring of 14 additional staff to help with the backlog.

According to Greg Guernsey, Planning and Development Review executive director, of the additional staff, 11 will be within the Planning and Development Review Department and three will be Austin Fire Department inspectors.

The city also approved an increase in permit fees for the first time since 1993 and is in the process of updating the overall permit process.

Don Birkner, Planning and Development Review assistant director, said the city hired an outside consulting firm two years ago to study the city's permit fee system and that the new fees were determined based on those results.

Guernsey said the main reason fees have not been increased in 19 years is because of the department's lack of a fee policy. But he said the development of such a policy is also part of the current study process.

Birkner said the plan is to raise fees over a series of years with a cap of any maximum fee of 25 percent per year until the fee reaches the study's recommended amount.

However, Harry Savio, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, said across-the-board increases for all types of permits was not a fair approach.

He said the increases relate mostly to building permits affecting more vertical—or commercial—development than land development when commercial is generating more money. According to Savio, the latest hard figures for data—fiscal year 2010–11—showed building permits made a net of $2 million for the city.

Savio further explained that there is a disparity in the fee increases as there are different people who need to take out a building permit as opposed to someone who needs to take out a development review permit—or both. He said he would guess that if the actual cost of service is examined more closely, it may be found that building permit fees are too high compared with land development fees.

Guernsey confirmed most of the increases address building fees and vertical development. However, he said another study is planned for next year, which will focus on the cost of service relating to horizontal development, such as subdivisions, site plans and zoning fees.

Savio clarified that the association is not against the hiring of staff, especially if the fees help pay for the hiring of more staff to process permits.

The plan is to review the new fee policy every three years, Guernsey said, but the first phase of fees could go into effect in October.

Birkner said July 9 that they are in the process of advertising and interviewing for the approved new staff, but are working on getting them hired in the next couple weeks.

Counts said she was glad that more staff will be hired as anything that helps speed up the process is a good move, especially if Austin wants to continue to attract new businesses.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell called the situation "a significant hardship on a lot of people."

"This whole issue of permitting and development review has become a major problem, and I'm committed to doing everything I can to try and correct the discrepancies in the future," he said.


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