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Streamlining Development

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By Katy Korkos

The Community Development Department has two distinct sides, one having to do with planning for the community and the other with building. It is the building division that most people work with, whether they are merely repairing their homes, adding on a room, or building from scratch.A sign in the lobby of the department in the Annex building at 901 Trinity reads: “Building Inspectors are in the office daily 7:30-10 a.m. to meet the public and answer questions about building permits.”“We really encourage people to come in for a pre-application meeting,” said Community Development Director Rick Bohn. “Don’t wait until the end of the job.”“A lot of what we do is education,” added Building Inspector Chris Williams. “People should look at it as a learning experience.”Bohn said the department fills two very different functions.“We have the planning function, which is all about quality of life, and more of a public hearing process,” Bohn said. “We ask people ‘Is this what you want for your community,’ and our code is different than other communities. We’re not the decision makers, it’s the community, the county council, the planning and zoning commission, public hearings.”The building division is a public safety function, he said.“It’s in place to save lives and property,” Bohn said. “It applies state, local, and national standards. Inspections are uniform. People don’t make decisions on their own in the field.” He said that inspections must conform to the regulations laid down by the New Mexico Construction Industries Division, and that the International Code Council is a resource for specific code questions.“There’s never a point when you can compromise,” Williams said.Construction industries division website states: cities and counties with local building inspection offices must adopt the building codes and standards of the division as a minimum standard.“Sometimes people think it’s an invasion of privacy (when we ask them for a floor plan),” Bohn said, “but it’s not something we’ve made up. Often we’re the bearer of bad news. We try to be very fair and even-handed.”Bohn said that although the department has the ability to assess fines in the case of obvious violations, fines are not commonly assessed. “Our purpose isn’t punishment; we want to have safe buildings,” he said.Bohn gave an example of an area where his department was perceived as arbitrarily imposing extra costs on homeowners who just wanted to replace their windows. When the homeowner or contractor applied for a permit for the project, the homeowner was surprised at how much they would have to change their homes. “Many of these houses were built in the 50s and 60s”, Bohn said, “and the bedroom windows were put up high, for privacy. According to the code now, the sills are too high for safety. The sill height must be low enough for a fireman to carry someone out through the window. Old buildings didn’t allow for that egress.”The building permit process is intimidating for many people, but the process is far more user-friendly than it was in years past. “There’s a lot of money and time involved when people undertake a building project,” Bohn said. “We understand people are under a lot of pressure, and we don’t want to add to that.” He said there had been several major improvements in the permitting process in recent months. Under Bohn’s direction, the department has shortened the processing times for a permit by reducing the number of people who review the application. They have added the service of “partial job inspections” in order to help people succeed at their final inspections. “If you’re not 100-percent complete, you’re not charged,” Bohn said.The department has also established a “limited scope” commercial permit, for projects that don’t need a registered design professional, and has also instituted a “placement” permit to simplify the process for people who are only going to place a shed or a fence, re-roof, for example, on their property, and are not making structural changes. The placement permit is not a building permit, and there is a $25 flat fee for that type of permit.“That means less time and less cost to the applicant,” Bohn said.A further refinement in the process has come with the addition of “pre-application meetings,” where people can meet with community development officials face-to-face. “We offer a service for homeowners and businesses, with no charge for consultation,” Bohn said. “We can’t plan for people, but we can certainly point them in the right direction.”“You know that your financial planning depends on those costs,” Williams said. “If we can help people know what their costs are going to be, their projects will be more successful.”“We want people to succeed,” Bohn said. “If the county has well-maintained buildings, it benefits all of us.”The office is open from 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. upstairs in the county annex at 901 Trinity Drive, phone 662-8120.