Construction permits in Aspen still on the fast track

Construction on a home on the west end of town continues in Aspen on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The city’s effort to fast-track building permits in order to boost the local economy due to the impacts of COVID-19 has allowed more projects to get approved quicker, which is a trend elected officials want to continue.

Aspen City Council earlier this week agreed that continuing to improve processes and creating more innovation for all the agencies that sign off on building permits is the right direction, acknowledging that construction is a significant contributor to the economy.

Community Development Director Phillip Supino told council that expediting permits at the rate the staff has for the past three months is not sustainable past the summer.

When council directed staff to fast-track construction permits in April, employees reprioritized their work, but it was at the expense of other community and departmental needs.

There are vacancies in the planning division, and in the building department, a part-time field inspector position will be open in the coming months.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein shared Supino’s concerns at Monday’s work session that employees need to focus on work that furthers their professional development and they continue to enjoy their jobs.

“My concern is that without adding staff that you’re going to be slipping, you are going to have burnout and it’s going to hurt us in the long run,” Hauenstein said.

Supino said the city is pursuing an inter-governmental agreement with other communities to share inspection capacity, but a long-term solution is needed to ensure acceptable customer service.

“The volume of permit submittals is tracking with previous years. … Staff is stretched thin by the exercise of expediting permits and the complexity of many of our reviews,” he wrote in a memo to council. “A major take-away from this exercise is that without structural changes to the permit process across agencies, expediting permit issuance was, more than anything, a request of staff to narrow its focus, work faster and work harder.”

As a result, the first round of review for a project in community development went from a three-month wait to five weeks.

Currently, 81 permits are in the review process, with 44 being the city’s responsibility.

The total number in the queue is down significantly from a yearly average of over 100 permits with just more than 60 as the city’s responsibility.

Other agencies, like the sanitation or fire district, also must review building permits depending on the project.

Supino said his staff has been looking at the queue on a weekly basis to identify projects that can go through faster, based on the specialties of reviewers and their workloads at the time.

There has been an uptick in permit applications in what have been dubbed “fluff and fold” projects, which are straightforward minor interior renovations in private residences.

Priority has been given to those projects likely to be quickly reviewed and approved.

“While this approach creates equity issues, with more complex projects potentially seeing longer review times versus smaller permits, it has been an effective tool to respond to council direction,” Supino said. “Staff’s view is that despite the equity issue, it is better for our customers overall to maintain this practice in the future.”

As of this week year to date, 247 building permits have been submitted, compared with 273 to date in 2019. Close to 1,000 permits are processed a year.

While the city’s regulatory environment makes quick approval of major projects challenging, Supino said staff has developed a more robust pre-submittal process to assist contractors in submitting complete permit applications.

“It’s my belief that having standardized turnaround times provides a level of predictability for staff and for our customers, which is good customer service and at least to this point has not undermined the quality of work being done,” Supino said.

Council agreed Monday also to leave Sept. 8 as the date in which construction projects can go into the right of way.

The board had considered starting construction season earlier to allow for more economic activity in the industry, but there are five large commercial projects in the commercial core that could interfere with the tourism season.

“These will be highly impactful to our downtown businesses,” City Engineer Trish Aragon said. “It’s very noisy right-of-way work because it’s excavation and large equipment and the constant beeping so these are high, high impact.”