Mounting frustrations over Baton Rouge building permit delays

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The No. 1 complaint in the Baton Rouge construction industry is the lengthy wait for building permit approval from city-parish government.

Anyone in Baton Rouge who works in real estate or construction will tell you delays in the permitting process is the single biggest problem they face.

With the wait time for a commercial building permit averaging between six and eight weeks—and sometimes stretching to as many as six months—builders, developers, buyers and sellers say it’s increasingly difficult to do business in East Baton Rouge Parish.

“That is the number one complaint I hear from my clients,” says real estate broker Mark Hebert. “It’s taking months and months to get a permit and, let’s face it, time is money.”

Later this month, the city-parish is expected to unveil its latest solution to the problem, when it selects a firm to provide plan review services to the overtaxed and understaffed Office of Permits in the Department of Development.

In June, the city-parish issued a Request for Proposals from firms interested in doing plan review for the permits office, which is where most of the logjam in the process occurs.

Director of Development Cary Chauvin won’t say which firms submitted proposals or how much they would charge for the expedited review process. But he hopes to convene a selection committee and pick a firm by the end of September.

This isn’t the first time the city-parish has sought solutions to a problem that has been bad for at least three years and continues to get worse.

More than two years ago, the Metro Council passed an ordinance enabling permit applicants to hire their own outside firm to review their building plans. But few applicants have taken that route, and the city-parish still must ultimately sign off on the plans. As a result, it hasn’t reduced delays by much.

Last year, the city-parish sought to contract with a private firm for plan reviews, much as it is doing this year. But the proposals submitted were more than the city-parish could afford, so the former administration scrapped the procurement process and went back to the drawing board.

Then, the Louisiana Flood of 2016 flood occurred and everything was put on hold, while permit applications increased and wait times grew longer.

Now, the city-parish is trying again with a new RFP. Will it produce a proposal from a firm that can really make a difference? Chauvin and others certainly hope so.

But the issue at the heart of the problem is a manpower shortage in the department, and the city-parish can’t—or won’t—address that by the raising salaries of city-parish workers who review commercial building plans. Currently, the department has just three plan reviewers, and with an average starting salary of $30,000 it has literally been impossible for the department to fill the other open positions.

During former Mayor Kip Holden’s administration, the issue came up time and again, but the city was always too broke to raise salaries across the board—and, the argument went, we can’t raise salaries for one department without raising them for all.

“We knocked on that door many, many times, but in the city-parish it just doesn’t happen that one select group gets raises,” Chauvin says. “We knew that wasn’t going to be an option so we looked elsewhere.”

Those in the development community are optimistic having a third-party firm on board will make a positive difference. But they’re not holding their breath. This isn’t the first time they’ve heard the situation might get better when it’s only only gotten worse.

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