The state is working to address growing delays in the building-project plan-review process that can slow down developments and increase their costs.
But it’s unclear whether Indiana’s Department of Homeland Security, whose staff reviews non-residential projects for compliance with state codes, will be able to keep up with demand, should it grow again next year.
Wait times for the plan-review process increased from an average of 10 to 12 days to 18 to 20 days during the summer and into the fall. In early September, the average wait was 21 days.
A thinner staff and unexpected influx of applications caused the uptick, said Bonnie Robison, the department’s director of plan review.
The review staff decreased from nine employees in 2007 to six. The department avoided filling vacant positions while a recession-driven slowdown in construction caused a contraction in applications coming in the door.
But, since the second quarter this year, Robison said, “we have showed a steady increase in applications.” At the same time, a more thorough review was mandated, making the process more time-intensive.
The increased workload led to a backlog of cases. And the only way to speed up the process was for developers to pay a flat fee of $5,000 on top of regular review costs, which range from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the project.
Adding extra time to the review can drag out the overall approval process for projects, adding to costs and, in some cases, threatening their viability.
“Every day you add to the entitlement process, you’re increasing the cost of the development,” said Brad Beaubien, director of Ball State University’s College of Architecture and Planning Indianapolis Center. “For major developments, that may not be an issue, but for the neighborhood-scale projects, that really adds up. That can be a deal-breaker in some cases.”
Mark Demerly, an Indianapolis architect, said he faced a four-week wait for the review this summer. But rather than paying the fee, he informed his clients that it was going to take longer. While it slowed down the project, they preferred the wait over the extra expense.
“It’s very cost-prohibitive, so it’s not even a consideration,” Demerly said. “It was as if that was the only option you had—normally it’s a two-week or 10-day scenario.”
In the last few months, the department has attacked its wait times by bringing in code-enforcement field inspectors to work on reviews and hiring two additional employees. As of the first week of December, the average wait was down to 12 days. That’s still up slightly from three years ago, when it was less than 10 days, Robison said.
It’s difficult to predict, though, whether the challenges will resurface next year if the economy grows as expected and construction projects see an uptick again.
Jason Shelley, executive director of the American Institute of Architects Indiana, said his members are more optimistic than they were a year ago, but no one is expecting a flood of work next year.
“The two key words: cautiously optimistic,” Shelley said. “Nobody is expecting great things, but nobody is expecting it to go down.”
While they have increased staff, the plan review staff is still down a person from three years ago, and Department of Homeland Security spokesman John Erickson said there are no current plans to hire another employee.
But, he said, if there is another surge, the department will do what it takes to keep the wait times down. That could include reallocating staff to help review applications.
“Certainly we’re going to take a look at what the needs are,” Erickson said, “as we hope the need for plan review increases.”