The commercial permitting process in Harris County is meant to ensure public welfare and safety, according to county officials. But some Katy-area business owners have said the system is inefficient and overly complicated, leading to long delays before the business owners can open their doors.
Robert Matheson, deputy chief with the Fort Bend County fire marshal’s office, said projects submitted to his office are typically reviewed and approved or denied within 10 days.
“If a code compliance issue is discovered during the review, a phone call is made to the contact person for the project and they are advised of the issue,” he said. “If no response is made to correct the issue[s], then the design documents are denied permit and a rejection letter is provided to the submitting company.”
Matheson said he has not heard any complaints from local businesses regarding the timeliness of the construction plan approval process, and his team is available to discuss projects and issues throughout the process.
Shawn Sturhan, assistant manager of the permit office for the Harris County Engineering Department, said his department works to ensure commercial development is not negatively affecting a neighborhood. These measures range from traffic flow and flood prevention outside the business to making sure fire extinguishers and emergency exits are properly marked inside.
“It’s important because if you’re opening a new business, the public is going to be entering there,” he said. “Whether it’s employees or customers, we check for building life safety so the people inside are going to be safe.”
Before opening a new business in Harris County, individuals must work with the Engineering Department to ensure the building is up to code, fire safety regulations are in place and health inspections, among others, are passed.
Once a business owner submits site and safety plans, he or she goes through a two-week review process with the county. Officials then return the plans with notes on what needs to be done to meet all codes and receive final approval.
“We are pretty strict on our two-week reviews,” Sturhan said. “Something that could take reviews long[er]is if [applicants]don’t address comments or make a correction [but]it still doesn’t meet code. We can’t approve something that doesn’t meet code.”
Building and fire code staff receives about 20 submissions daily, some of which are entering the second or third round of review, Sturhan said. The department also permits about 200 lease spaces every month, so not all assignments are new buildings.
Harris County Fire Marshal Mike Montgomery said, for many businesses, the fire inspection is the final step before occupancy. However, anyone who offers food or beverages must also request a food permit from Harris County Public Health before opening.
The applicant must submit an application, plan, menu and fee to HCPH, said Deanna Copeland, manager of food and neighborhood nuisance abatement for HCPH. The HCPH must complete its review within four weeks of receiving the application. After the review, a request for a preopening inspection must be submitted 10 days before the desired inspection date. Applicants have one year to complete their portion of the process, she said.
Obtaining the food and beverage permit is not more difficult or time-consuming than obtaining other permits, but it creates additional opportunities for mistakes and delays in the process, several business owners said.
Opening delays hurt bottom line
Pari Natarajan, owner of Koldprezz in Katy, said his organic and raw juice shop was set to open in December, but permitting delays pushed that date back to February.
“The juice promotes a health lifestyle, and [in the]new year, people want to get more into fitness centers, and they want to try something new,” he said. “Asking someone to start something new in the middle of February is a big lost marketing opportunity.”
Many delays stemmed from a lack of communication between entities, including Harris County’s permitting department, health department and the local water district, according to Natarajan.
This is unavoidable for anyone opening a new business. For local entrepreneurs, Natarajan said paying several entities on top of losing several months of business could be devastating to local entrepreneurs.
Natarajan said the officials who inspected the shop had no standard for businesses like Koldprezz. Because the building is old and had existing plumbing lines, he thought the health department inspection would be easy.
Making and bottling fresh juices on-site requires minimal equipment, but Natarajan said officials asked about heating ranges, vent hoods, grease traps and other unnecessary equipment. This caused nearly two months of delay.
“Those things are not serving any purpose,” he said. “They told me, ‘We don’t know what will be the future use of this building.’ But I’m paying rent for [the juice bar], I’m not paying rent for the future use of the building.”
Other local business owners were unwilling to speak on the record but said Harris County did not file their permitting paperwork properly, which caused delays of up to six months. Poor communication was the top reason given for delays, according to sources.
Sturhan said business owners can submit reviews online, download copies of approved plans and pay for permits via credit card, he said.
“Our main goal here is public safety,” Sturhan said. “We’re not trying to stop development or make it hard to open a business. The sooner I can get you meeting code and open for business, the sooner you’re out of my hair.”
Don Huff, owner of two Papa Murphy’s locations in Katy, said his experience under the city of Katy’s permitting department was a positive one.
“Even though the city at times took a little while to get some things through the system, the permitting for me was actually OK,” he said. “I actually went back and wrote a nice letter to their boss.”
Huff said when he opened his first Papa Murphy’s location, he did the walk-throughs with permitting officials himself, but the second time around, he paid his architect to attend facility assessments.
When Huff ran into an issue or something that could potentially turn into a problem, he said the most effective way to deal with it was to visit the permitting office and meet with staff face-to-face.
“One thing that I found is if they say they’re going to come by on a certain day, at least the owner needs to be there to let them in,” Huff said. “The city inspectors would come out there, and if you weren’t out there, they’d leave a note and come back on a different day—maybe the following week.”
Huff said he could understand how business owners could grow frustrated with the permitting process. Rescheduling a meeting could cause delays and cost more money, and many entrepreneurs take out loans to build out a new space, he said.
Some business owners see the process as a nuisance—especially when the city cannot accomplish everything as quickly as they would like, Huff said.
“The number of inspectors that work for the permitting department—there were not a whole bunch of them,” Huff said. “They have a lot of things going on, a lot of buildings being built out in that area they have to cover.”
Additional reporting by Vanessa Holt