Any time a business opens a retail location, restaurant, or even does any renovation work, it is going to encounter the department of Building and Zoning Services. While it may not be the most glamorous step of the process, it’s a critical one – and one that the department is always working to streamline.
Scott Messer, director of Building and Zoning Services, recently shared with The Metropreneur the advancements the department has made to improve processes, and how a business can best prepare itself to work with Building and Zoning Services.
Since branching out from the Development Department in 2010, Messer says Building and Zoning Services has been focusing on three core areas: 1) customer service; 2) technology; and 3) process improvement.
When it comes to customer service, one of the department’s most important initiatives is free accumulative review meetings.
“Any customer who has a project they are considering can come in for free and schedule a meeting in our one-stop-shop area with Andy Beard,” Messer says.
Agencies from around the city and within the department – building, zoning, sewer, water, transportation, rec & parks, fire, etc. – come together to provide free feedback to customers, answering questions like, “Are you going to need a zoning change? Are there sewer challenges? What kinds of plans are you going to need to turn in? How long would that take?” Messer says.
Customers can even use the service to inquire about parcels they might be interested in before making a financial commitment.
The free preliminary review can also help with one piece of advice Messer offers businesses going through the permitting process – have realistic expectations about the project’s timeframe.
“The sooner you get in here to talk about project, the sooner you will get some feedback from us as to what a realistic timeline looks like based on what your project is,” he says.
A set of plans still has to go through all of the required agencies, but taking advantage of the one-stop shop can help a business have a more complete application up front, often saving time.
As for what exactly that timeframe will be, “Every project is different,” Messer says.
Each step has a general timeframe – for example, rezoning could take three to six months – but again, much of it depends on the project.
Technology is helping Building and Zoning Services improve the customer experience in many ways.
“We have a whole new tracking system in our front customer service area where we track wait times, types of permits, how many customers we have each day, what time of day they come in,” Messer says. “It’s a robust software system that’s allowed us to better meet the needs of our customers.”
While that applies to businesses that visit the Carolyn Avenue location, Messer is working to migrate many of the processes online, with about half currently available through the website.
For example, “You can purchase additional inspections online,” he says.
If a project runs out of inspections, a business can go online, fill out an application with their permit number and purchase additional inspections.
Also, “You can get any permit that doesn’t require blueprints or plan review,” Messer says.
Most permits do require blueprints or plan reviews, but exceptions available online are one-for-one replacements of mechanical equipment (think water heaters, AC units, etc.) and minor limited scope permits (things like windows, roofing, siding). An individual just has to provide the scope, pay the fee and print their permit.
Online blueprints aren’t far behind. Work has begun to scan some five million plus old records to store them electronically, building a searchable database.
“Connected with that is an ability to start to accept blueprints online,” Messer says.
He hopes that by the end of the year the ability to submit blueprints and plans electronically will be up and running, rounding out the other half of services to be migrated online.
Other process improvements are expediting plans and plan review processes, getting permits into businesses’ hands faster.
Staring this month, for a fee businesses can take advantage of an after-hours expedited plan review process. Plans are examined immediately instead of in the required 30-day period.
“There are certain plans that we also can do all of the permits in walk-through process,” Messer says. “If it’s a simple plan we will walk that plan through, for a fee, and you will walk out of here on the same day with your permits.”
This applies to projects that don’t require many of those items addressed in the one-stop shop – zoning variances, sewer or parking issues, etc.
“The most common plan that’s going to qualify for that process is a shell building that’s already been built and we’ve already permitted the shell,” Messer says.
The director offers one final piece of advice for navigating the department and making the process as timely as possible.
“There’s an advantage to using design professionals and contractors who are familiar with our system,” Messer says.
If a business opts to DIY or just go with the lowest bidder, “That probably will add time to your project,” Messer says.
Especially when time is of the essence, a design professional or contractor’s ability to navigate the department can make a huge difference.
Messer says the department is committed to continuing to improve, but they need its customers help to do it.
“A key element to our success is feedback from our customers,” he says. “We can’t address problems we’re not aware of.”
For more information, visit columbus.gov/bzs/.