City could reinstate fast-track permits

A well-liked service by Federal Way’s Community Development department soon could be back by popular demand.

If the City Council approves the department’s budget request for 2002, “over-the-counter permitting” could be reinstated by March for residential and commercial customers who need to make minor structural improvements on properties.

For a $25 fee, the abbreviated process – appointments can be set just a few days in advance – will accelerate the permitting process for homeowners who wish to add on a deck or shed and for business owners who wish to change the layout of a strip-mall space. Sliding plans “over-the-counter” to city officials could trim about eight weeks off a typical permitting wait time, city officials said.

“It’s been absolutely horrible,” said John Schweitzer, a Federal Way resident and president of Tacoma-based Superior Builders. Schweitzer, whose company improves commercially leased properties from Tacoma to Renton, says most cities have some type of “over-the-counter” permitting, but Federal Way is the odd town out. Tacoma’s process can take just a few minutes to a few days, he said.

“It gives Tacoma a huge advantage over Federal Way right now. It’s just something you can plan for,” he said.

When the Federal Way process was in effect last year, “I knew that I could have a permit in a timely manner,” he added.

Schweitzer said the expedited process would easily save property owners thousands of dollars. For instance, he said, a 3,000-square-foot office space may rent for $4,500 per month. That means if making minor improvements, such as adding drywall, run up against an eight-week waiting period, a property owner can lose $9,000 in potential rent, he said.

“I’ve done some recently that didn’t take that long, but they’re always giving the worst-case scenario,” he said.

Schweitzer’s sentiments appear to have the support of both the city staff and the City Council. The idea of renewing the swift process got a warm reception by some councilmembers at a recent study session.

Under the proposed budget amendment, the $25 fee would raise $4,000 annually. The revenue would go toward training and salary for an assistant building official and planning examiner to do the over-the-counter permitting. The seven-member council likely will vote on an amended city budget at its Dec. 4 meeting.

City Building Official Mary Kate Martin said the popular service was a casualty of the last budget cycle, but she’s hopeful it will be reinstated in the spring.

The people who most liked the faster process were the commercial contractors, Martin said, but added homeowners also benefit in timesavings and talking one-on-one with city officials.

However, some property improvements will still take longer, Martin said. Restaurants, for instance, that change uses will need health department approval and will not be eligible for “over-the-counter” permitting. Likewise, properties facing land-use issues will go through the longer process.

“The permitting waiting times are an issue because time is money. We certainly understand that,” Martin said. “We’ve been trying to get it back and running because we liked it very much as well.”

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