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Permit backlog foils contractors

Applications near 1,000 as an avalanche overwhelms the permitting office. Builders hope to beat new hurricane construction standards.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2002


For hundreds of people eager to cross the thresholds of their new Pasco County homes, this has been the year of postponed gratification.

It has little to do with a shortage of lumber, concrete or labor. The problem is building permits, the slips of paper without which builders can't start work on a house.

Pasco County's backlog of unprocessed building permits is approaching 1,000. Stacks of cardboard boxes full of permit applications overwhelm the central permitting office in New Port Richey.

"We're doing overtime, weekends and nights to get it done," said development director Cindy Jolly as she dodged boxes spread on the carpet last week.

Builders expected delays in February as they jammed permit offices to beat new statewide building standards that required more hurricane-resistant construction.

But Jolly said her office has finished reviewing almost all of those applications. What her 26 employees are tackling now arrived later.

The overload didn't take the county completely by surprise: Pasco set a recent record by issuing nearly 3,900 permits for single family homes last year.

Nor has business slackened this year. Central permitting gets 80 to 100 applications weekly, mostly for new homes in central Pasco, a popular suburb for people who work in Tampa.

"It's pure volume," Jolly said. "It's taking us at least four to six weeks before we can finish an application."

Builders and home buyers are antsy. To address customer complaints, Ryland Homes called an emergency meeting of its employees earlier this month. One topic was how to increase the efficiency of contractors to help erase time lost to permitting.

Ryland's projects include a couple of thousand homes at Plantation Palms, Valencia Gardens and Collier Commons in Land O'Lakes and Key Vista near the Gulf of Mexico in Holiday.

Some people who contracted to buy Ryland lots in early March have yet to get permits. They were assured in March that permitting would take about two weeks.

Many who planned to move into new homes this summer must wait until fall, raising fears they won't seal their deals in time to enjoy low interest rates available now.

The situation appears similar with US Home Corp., building the last of 642 homes in Wesley Chapel's Northwood development, as well has hundreds of homes in Heritage Springs and Heritage Pines in west Pasco. One US Home staffer called the permitting crunch "a nightmare."

Jolly said delays also affect Suarez Housing, which is building in the Meadow Pointe, Willow Bend, Sable Ridge and Oakstead communities.

Inland Homes hasn't been spared either: It's building in Sable Ridge, the Groves, Oak Grove and Oakstead, all in Land O'Lakes.

Volume alone isn't gumming up the works, Jolly said. Her staff is striving to master new building regulations, including the new hurricane standards and tree planting and landscaping rules approved in Pasco this year.

Jolly pegged another problem. Pointing to boxes of completed building permits that Suarez seemed in no hurry to pick up, she said some builders sought permits for lots they had yet to sell.

By forcing the county to process so called "spec homes," those builders displaced applications from other builders, such as Ryland, that have customers standing in line for homes, Jolly said.

"We're asking builders to prioritize," she said.

Jolly said overwork also afflicts her inspections department, the people who monitor contractors' handiwork. She has requested money for seven new inspectors in next year's budget.

As for the staffers overseeing home building permits, Jolly's strategy has been to shift employees among the county's three permitting offices to meet demand.

The Pasco Building Association, the industry's main mouthpiece in the county, declined to return several calls from the Times.

-- James Thorner covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613, 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613 or thorner@sptimes.com.

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