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City officials work to alleviate permitting backlogs

Mark Parker

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St. Petersburg’s ongoing construction boom has shown no signs of slowing; in addition, the city’s planning departments are undergoing massive changes.

The result is a permitting backlog that will likely increase in the new year. However, Liz Abernethy, director of planning and development services, wants stakeholders to know they will soon see significant improvements.

The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership enlisted Abernethy to provide permitting process insight in a Dec. 14 webinar. Jason Mathis, CEO of the Partnership, said a regional developer was “floored” when he heard a city’s planning official was acknowledging an issue and working collaboratively to ascertain solutions.

“I think that just speaks to Liz’s (Abernethy) leadership, authenticity and capacity for wanting to be constructive … to get it right,” Mathis added. “I know it’s very frustrating when things don’t move quickly or smoothly.”

Abernethy said permitting applications have backed up over the past six to eight weeks. Personnel issues were part of the problem.

Abernethy oversees about 100 staffers throughout three departments: Construction services and permitting, urban planning and historic preservation and development review services (zoning).

She is hiring new floodplain managers and coordinators and said administrators have implemented pay and position adjustments “for every section of our entire building.” Abernethy said several team members received $10,000 in pay raises.

She said that increases staff morale, retention and recruitment. However, she said training new employees contributes to the lag in permit processing.

New building codes, effective Jan. 1, have also led to an influx of recent applications. “We could have a little bit of a backlog again in January to catch up from that,” Abernethy said.

She said building officials have seen a 33% increase in inspections. Some of that is due to zoning changes that allow for increased density on nearly 3,000 parcels along major traffic corridors.

“Many of you know we are replacing our very antiquated software system,” Abernethy said. “I definitely think the new software is going to take us out of the dark ages and allow a lot more transparency …”

Elizabeth Abernethy, director of planning and development services, discusses zoning changes at a St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce event.

Implementing the platform, which Abernethy repeatedly stressed would increase efficiency, will not happen overnight. She expects the city council to approve the recently selected vendor’s contract in February.

“We are staffing up for that implementation because it is going to probably be an 18-month to two-year timeline of converting data and training,” Abernethy added.

A local commercial real estate broker spoke for the development community she represents. She said a lack of permitting feedback and process transparency is a common complaint.

Abernethy said building officials are now flagging projects unapproved after the second review. She suggested a meeting requirement before allowing a third submittal to help applicants better understand expectations.

Abernethy said that is currently a recommendation rather than a potentially illegal mandate. She said the goal is to complete initial residential reviews in 14 days and commercial applications in three weeks.

Subsequent evaluations should take seven days. “I think those teams are finally fully staffed, so I think we’re going to be a little bit closer to meeting or exceeding those goals … ,” Abernethy said.

Mathis said most developers see the process as a “team effort” and want to help create a more efficient process. However, he also noted many are hesitant to express concerns.

“People have this perception that if I raise my hand and complain all the time, then it’s going to slow my process down,” Mathis added. “I don’t think that is the case, but we can sort of filter that out.”

He is asking developers to contact the Downtown Partnership with permitting concerns. The organization is compiling a list of opportunities for improvement, and Mathis said specific information would help identify problem areas.

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