These days, it’s easier for Art Allen just to level with his customers.
“I tell the homeowner, ‘It’s going to take longer to get the permit and complete all the paperwork than it will for us to build your pool,’” said the owner of A&G Concrete Pools in Fort Pierce, Fla., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder.
In the past, permits typically came back in about a week, according to Allen, who does business throughout Central Florida. But in the past year, that process has become bogged down in bureaucracy.
The time frame for permit approval now hovers around two months, he said.
“They’re asking for a lot more now: They want information on the pump curves, and they want to know about the piping, or detail about the motors we’re using,” Allen said. “It’s just a lot more engineering that needs to be done. And the things they’re asking for don’t really have much real value to them.”
But many believe the delays may not be all red tape. A number of builders across the nation are experiencing holdups that closely correspond to cutbacks in city and county departments.
And those in particularly hard-hit areas such as Florida, California and Arizona may be seeing the worst of it.
“The volume of permits being applied for has gone down,” said Ken Gregory, president of Holland Commercial Pools in Longwood, Fla., and chairman of the Florida Building Commission’s subcommittee on swimming pools.
“So there’s a reduced amount of work, but also very small staffs,” Gregory said. “Because people have more time now, they’re having to justify their existence. They’re coming up with some real oddball requests, asking about water retention and flood plains, and scrutinizing things like the footer detail.”
As a result, he said, failed inspections have increased more than 50 percent in Florida beginning about a year ago, though it’s intensified in the last six months.
And contractors across the state have been calling the Florida Building Commission with greater frequency, asking the group to intercede on their behalf, Gregory added.
Compounding the problem is the fact that some Florida cities have outsourced their building services either to county departments or private firms, which has caused further delays and backlogs.
In Northern California, Linda Krey reported similar experiences with local planning and public works departments. Whereas a year ago the permit approval process took a week to 10 days on average, it now takes three weeks or longer, she said.
“For the Sacramento County Planning Department, we never before had to show exactly where the gas and electric lines were going to be run,” said Krey, who runs permits for Aqua Pool & Spa in Manteca, Calif., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder.
“They used to accept a survey for the house and that was all you needed.”
But now, she said, planning offices require a separate survey for every structure, including the pool, at a cost of $460 per review. What’s more, a number of area municipalities have begun requiring the homeowner’s signature on a barrier form.
“On top of that, it’s a juggling act to know which department is open when,” she said. “I used to be able to do six permits a day. Now I’m doing three. When the staff isn’t there, the time-effectiveness is dropped.”
Steve Rondeau has voiced his displeasure with the local planning and zoning departments for years, but Maricopa County supervisors have done little to help. Permit fees have climbed by as much as 60 percent, and there’s a lack of consistency among staff, Rondeau said.
A local permit may have cost $300 last year, but now could run upwards of $1,000, said the co-owner and president of Rondo Pools Inc. in Phoenix, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder.
“But I can still get it done for $165 in some places,” he added. “So when you’ve got a range like that, it’s tough to accurately project out what your cost is going to be. We just do our best to educate the homeowners and warn them upfront.”
The problem, quite simply, is that city planning offices are not designed to make a profit, said Scott Cohen, garden artisan and owner of The Green Scene in Northridge, Calif. Thus, efficiency is largely ignored.
Keeping files open longer and passing them through various local and county departments helps ensure jobs are retained, he said.
In Los Angeles County, it may be possible to expedite the permit process, but only by adding a 30 percent premium, according to Cohen.
“What needs to happen is, the engine of business has to start moving again,” he said. “And this is a huge stumbling block in our way at a time when we don’t need any more hurdles in front of us.”