By: Chip Minty The Journal Record
NORMAN – Builders and contractors have maligned the city of Norman’s permitting process for years, calling it slow, inefficient, and costly to their businesses. They consider Norman among the hardest communities in the metro to work in and some have stopped doing business there.
But now, City Manager Darrel Pyle is hoping to change all that. He says Norman’s bad rap has been at the top of his priority list since he moved here from his former post in Hanford, California, last July.
With support from the Norman City Council, Pyle is overhauling Norman’s permitting process, hoping to restore the city’s tarnished reputation among builders in the Oklahoma City metro area.
At the center of his effort is a $7.8 million facility renovation project that will bring the city’s entire permitting process under one roof, creating a one-stop shop for builders and contractors hoping to move projects through City Hall as fast as possible.
Pyle is turning a 40,000-square-foot building adjacent to Norman’s city administration complex into a permitting headquarters with office space for more than 100 city staff members. The building, which used to serve as Norman’s central library, will open next year and will house the city’s fire inspectors, engineering department, planning department and finance department.
Any function associated with obtaining a building permit will be handled in that building, Pyle says. Issues or questions will be resolved efficiently with a quick phone call or a trip down the hall.
That will be a big improvement from years past, Pyle says. Until recently, the system and the staff were not cohesive. Some staff members had never met other colleagues involved in the permitting process, and many weren’t even sure how the entire system worked.
Several months ago, Pyle began to change that by bringing everyone together for a week of discussions facilitated by Management Partners, a California-based consulting group.
Since then, Pyle and his permitting team have been on a roll, looking for opportunities to improve efficiency and finding ways to push permits out the door faster.
The city now can self-certify certain types of sewer-line construction, which speeds the permitting process by sidestepping the need for a state Department of Environmental Quality inspection, which can take 45 days to complete.
The city has also hired third-party plan checkers to help when full-time staff members are bogged down by surging workloads, and inspectors can now inspect some types of construction virtually, rather than drive to job sites for every inspection, Pyle said.
Rigid work schedules are a thing of the past, he says. Now, building inspectors are available to visit worksites at sunrise if necessary, to allow construction projects to proceed without costly delays, waiting for inspectors to start their normal workdays.
The city also has developed a new website that builders can use to submit plans and communicate with city staff. The site is more technologically advanced, and, for the first time, it is Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with our staff,” Pyle said. “The biggest change has been in attitude, realizing that just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean we always have to do it that way. There is a realization that developers are the priority.”
“We have only one goal here at the city of Norman. We want to be the best there is,” he said.
Norman Chamber of Commerce President Scott Martin said he’s thrilled with the changes.
He’s heard story after story from people who have faced challenges going through Norman’s permitting process, including from a couple of Norman’s City Council members.
“This has been a priority of the chambers for many years now,” Martin said. “Permitting is critical to the development community, but it needs to be fair and responsive. I have yet to talk to anyone who is not supportive of high standards, but when the process is extra challenging and particularly hard, that’s where the frustration is.”
“Around the metro, Norman has had the reputation of being a hard place to do business, and this is going to improve that reputation,” he said.
Tim Grissom, owner of TC Grissom Building Co., says he’s been building in Norman for 25 years, and he’s glad to hear changes are on the horizon.
“That’s a good thing, because the process can be frustrating,” Grissom said. “It has been for years.”
He said the city staff members he works with are nice people, but the system they work in has been a typical government bureaucracy, and they’ve never shown much interest in changing it.
“I just think they could do a better job.”
Curtis McCarty, a former member of the Norman Planning Commission, says he’s been building homes in Norman for nearly 30 years, and over time, he’s learned how to adapt to the city’s way of doing things.
McCarty, owner of McCarty Construction, said the city has asked him and other builders for suggestions, and he can see they’re trying to improve.
The residential side has been better the last few years, and if the city can improve service on the commercial side, it will improve Norman’s reputation among builders in the metro area.
“I think it’s working, and they’re going in the right direction,” McCarty said.