Official: Building permit process improving

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HILO — It’s been a little more than a year since the county beefed up its staff and overhauled its building permit review process in an effort to speed up permits.

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HILO — It’s been a little more than a year since the county beefed up its staff and overhauled its building permit review process in an effort to speed up permits.

But about a dozen people — primarily design professionals and construction contractors — on Tuesday laughed off a Public Works official’s contention that things are much better now.

The group told the County Council Committee on Public Works and Parks and Recreation the process still leaves a lot to be desired. Long delays, a cumbersome process with conflicting requirements and multiple steps can mean six months or more to get a building permit, some said.

“The Building Division is being run like a dictatorship,” said Daniel Bona, a longtime plan designer.

More than half of the structures in lower Puna and rural areas of the county aren’t permitted, estimated Oshi Simsarian, a Puna resident.

“People want to be legal. People want to be permanent. But they’re afraid to even try,” Simsarian said.

Paul Bailey, of Paul Bailey Construction Ltd., has been building homes on the island since 1971. In the old days, he said, he could draw up plans on an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper, turn it in, and get approval after lunch.

“Those buildings are still standing. … Families are still living in them,” Bailey said. “What are we trying to fix? Nothing’s being fixed here; it’s just being made more complex.”

Deputy Public Works Director Brandon Gonzalez defended his department, saying permit applications that are incompletely filled out leave plan reviewers with questions and add time to the review process.

“What we would like and what everybody would like is for you to turn in the plan and it is reviewed one time and it’s approved,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what we all want.”

Gonzalez acknowledged the new process is “not working as well as intended,” but he maintained it has improved. “The more information they can provide at the front end, the better,” he said of the permit application process.

The county added 22 new positions and instituted regular multi-agency meetings to keep all necessary departments, such as Planning and Environmental Management, in the loop early on.

The problem can be exacerbated by new rules instituted after the 2012 adoption of a new building code, he added.

“To my knowledge, we needed to do this,” said Hilo Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, who asked Public Works to address the committee after hearing from constituents.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille asked if a single plan reviewer could follow an application entirely through the process, to avoid plan reviewers at cross-purposes.

“There could be thousands and thousands of dollars in changes between Henry and Frank and George,” Wille said. “There is a range of interpretation.”

The department has to avoid all perception of favoritism, which might happen if certain reviewers are specified, Gonzalez said.

The department recently undertook a blind test where two new kit homes of comparable square footage were tracked, one in Hilo and one in Kona. The Kona home took 21 days, compared to 22 days for the Hilo home. The reviewers didn’t know the applications were being tracked.

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Public Works continues to strive to improve, Gonzalez said.

“It’s a continuing work in progress,” he said.

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