New cities within metropolitan Atlanta
New cities within metropolitan Atlanta

New cities are sprouting up all over metropolitan Atlanta, burdening builders with what they say are cumbersome permit applications. What used to be an inexpensive, streamlined process through a county agency now is managed by municipalities, which tend to charge more and are slower to approve, builders maintain.

It’s a common frustration among those in the building trades who see projects delayed by bureaucratic rigmarole. “There is some interest in banding together and approaching these cities to see if there is a way to expedite these permits,” said Craig Sears, president of the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals’ Georgia Chapter.

Georgia might find its solution in Texas. Last year, the APSP Greater Austin Chapter and the city of Austin came to a mutually beneficial agreement: Industry pros who obtain their Certified Pool Builder accreditation through the APSP and pass an intensive course in the city’s permit application requirements would get approval faster. Called Fast Track, the program whittled the waiting time down from months to days.

Sears said they’re exploring the possibility of adopting a similar program in Atlanta.

Whereas Austin’s permitting problems stemmed from an understaffed planning department in the midst of a building boom, Atlanta is facing its own unique circumstances. In recent years, the area has seen a rash of communities splinter off from DeKalb and Fulton county governments to incorporate as cities. Some have put moratoriums on issuing building and zoning permits while they figure out how to staff and operate services.

“The reason for that is, they don’t get cooperation from the county they’re receding from,” said John Saunders, owner of Nationwide Building Permits Inc., a consulting practice in Ellijay, Ga. “They’re forced into this situation where they need to hit the ground running, and they don’t have time to plan everything out.”

Saunders said the rising cost can be attributed to expensive third-party vendors that small municipalities hire to operate their planning departments.

Connie Willard said she can pay upwards of $1,000 to file a permit; previously, she paid around $100. The office manager at Mirage Pools in Cumming waits patiently while applications trudge through a chain of city employees, such as engineers and arborists. What used to take a week could take several weeks, she said, adding that cities also tend to require more documentation than counties do. The criteria differ from city to city. “You wish they could all be the same within a 50-mile radius,” Willard said.

Shawn Still, general manager of Olympic Pool Plastering in Norcross and past president of the state’s APSP chapter, says part of the problem can be attributed to homeowners who are pulling their own permits. And, unlike California, Georgia doesn’t require pool builders to carry a specialized license. Any general contractor can do the job. “What bogs it down is that you have companies or individuals requesting permits who haven’t done their applications properly,” Still said.

The spike in civic activity hasn’t so far disrupted business at Neptune Pools in Sugar Hill, said Evan Horning, a partner and director of sales. However, new cities typically bring steep permit fees. “If we go into a project knowing the municipality, we do pass those increases on to the consumer,” he said.

Atlanta’s newest city is Brookhaven, which began operating in January and whose city hall, interestingly, is in Dunwoody, incorporated in 2008. Michael Nier helped get both cities’ building departments off the ground. The private contractor currently serves as Brookhaven’s building official. He disputes the notion that new cities are gouging builders, saying that Brookhaven doesn’t charge significantly more than DeKalb County.

When builders complain about slow turnaround, it’s generally because they didn’t follow procedure, he said. Third-party vendors are held to a higher standard than county code inspectors. “Being a third-party private company, we’re scrutinized,” Nier said.

He knows of two more Atlanta cities that are considering incorporating.