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EXCLUSIVE: Builders and business owners say Arlington’s new permit system is lagging

(Updated 4:45 p.m. on 3/14/23) Builders and entrepreneurs tell ARLnow they are waiting up to twice as long as they used to for Arlington County to issue permits, costing them thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of dollars.

Permits that used to be issued the same day now take 1-3 weeks while those that took 2-3 months take double that time, they say. Meanwhile, the Arlington Permit Office’s limited hours of operation compound the delays and the high permitting fees exacerbate the costs incurred from waiting.

The apparent degradation of the county’s permit operation — corroborated by a number of sources, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals — follows the years-long development of a new online permitting system dubbed Permit Arlington.

The online system was touted by the county as a solution for long-standing problems with the former, more antiquated paper system.

“They have completely destroyed the system. They are slowing progress. The new system still doesn’t work nearly two years later,” a local custom home builder said. “Builders’ and developers’ holding costs are staggering.”

The Arlington Chamber of Commerce concurs.

“Some of our members may accept paying more for a quality permit service, but the timeframe and process must improve in order to justify the costs,” spokesman John Musso said. “We encourage the County to continue to recognize businesses as customers seeking a service, in this case permits.”

The complaints come as Arlington County continues transferring all permitting processes to its online system. The county has tied delays to the migration of permits into the system but has maintained that the overall wait time has not changed.

“With the phased launches of Permit Arlington, we are moving from a system with 1990 technology to a modern system,” said Dept. of Community Housing, Planning and Development spokeswoman Erika Moore. “This type of technological transition is complex and presents a learning curve for both staff and customers as all users adjust to using a new system.”

As part of the migration process, which started in 2019, Certificate of Occupancy permits moved online last week and last summer, nearly 10,000 active applications for building, trade and land disturbing activity permits moved online.

In response to customer inquiries, Moore said the Permit Arlington team is actively working through issues, has increased the size of the help desk team, has added numerous “how-to” documents and is making permanent fixes to prevent issues that caused earlier delays.

“The team will continue to work through these fixes until all the issues are resolved,” she said.

She says the Permit Arlington team applied lessons learned from the launch last summer to improve the implementation process for Certificates of Occupancy, “which launched smoothly two weeks ago.”

Musso counters there were still some issues.

“We have had several members note pain points with the transition of Certificates of Occupancy to Permit Arlington, resulting in confusion and uncertainty,” he said.

Concurrently, the county is requesting feedback about the permit process from recent applicants.

“We have heard from 250 people, but we want to provide enough time for people to respond,” Moore said. “Once it is closed, we will analyze the feedback and identify any potential action items.”

Meanwhile, the feedback was rolling into ARLnow.

Another home designer and builder was frustrated with office hours, which are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. Every third Thursday, the office closes at noon. The Permit Office re-opened for in-person service in September after being completely virtual due to the pandemic.

“I would be willing to say that the eight hours a week are just not enough and that the threat of Covid is no longer there,” said home designer and builder Leonard Matthews. “How odd it is that Arlington County Schools are [fully] open but the permit office is not?”

Outside in-person hours, permitting queries are handled over email, to the chagrin of one local architect who works for a D.C. firm.

“For every email I send, I get a response about a week later, so depending on the issue this can take weeks,” he said. “Mostly, the problems are with the online system, but often, the problems are because the reviewers are waiting for another department to confirm that another department approved it and then confirm back that it had been confirmed.”

“Sometimes, it’s because it’s just stuck in the queue and no one saw it… but every time, it requires several phone calls and weeks of emails to resolve,” the architect added.

This description resonated with a local restaurateur who is trying to get a permit to open a new live music venue. He said that the process is siloed and that different divisions keep passing applicants back and forth in a repeating loop of frustration.

“What I’m encountering — that I haven’t before — is that everyone wants to say, ‘You’re good to go,’ but no one is willing to issue an approval. Everyone is fearful of having their name beside the dotted line. We keep getting kicked from one discipline to another, one contact to another,” he said.

He wants to go back to a time when people could walk into the office and talk to somebody.

“Nobody is in their offices,” he said. “That’s how government needs to function: you need to go in and talk to somebody… The pandemic made strides in remote work, but in some cases, it’s not working for the end user — the citizens of the county.”

People told ARLnow that the poor service was especially upsetting given how much they spend on permits. One builder says it costs him $22,000 in permit fees alone to build a single-family home in Arlington compared to $2,500 in Fairfax County.

The Arlington Chamber also raised concerns about increased application fees not correlating to faster service back in 2019.

“The adoption of a streamlined, online permitting system and the charging of higher application fees should lead to faster processing and improved customer service,” President and CEO Kate Bates said in a letter.

Developers could get relief from high fees, pending the outcome of a forthcoming development fees study.

The county is working with a consultant on a study of development fees, which will include comparing fees in Arlington to those in neighboring jurisdictions, Moore said. There will also be a public engagement period.

Arlington County raised its development fees by 4% to adjust for inflation, leading the Chamber of Commerce to urge the county to put that funding to work ensuring “that pre-pandemic service levels will be the standard as we move forward.”

In the meantime, the hopeful live music venue operator says he is paying rent on a space he cannot open until he has the permit in hand. This has impacted his relationship with the landlord, he said.

It has also cost some people their jobs and neighboring restaurants poised to benefit from live music have taken a hit, too, the restaurateur said.

“Getting the runaround from the county is very adversely affecting us,” he said. “If there was ever a time we needed our local government to help us get where we need to go, this is where we need them the most. Having us go deeper in debt with money we don’t have is extremely problematic.”

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