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Pittsfield Officials Hear Input on Permitting Issues

By Joe Durwin
Special to iBerkshires
03:59AM / Monday, April 09, 2012
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Perceived staffing issues and excessive regulation were among the chief complaints about the city's permitting system expressed by builders and other local businesspeople at an open forum with permitting officials at City Hall on Wednesday.

The forum was organized by Mayor Daniel Bianchi, who had indicated early on in his term that it was a priority. 

The purpose of the forum, he said, was to gain input from contractors, tradespeople and other residents for ways the process might be streamlined at the local level. Members of the public wishing to learn more about permitting were also invited to attend.
  
"When I ran for the office of mayor, one of the things I talked about quite a bit with folks was 'How can we make it easier for our businesses to operate?'" Bianchi told a crowd of around 30 who attended. "Not just as far as getting building permits, but in general. Are there things that we can do to make things more accessible through our departments?
   
"A lot of the things that we do as far as permitting is concerned is pretty much set in law," he admitted. "That doesn't mean that we can't make it easier, that we can't help folks out and find an easier way to do things."

The mayor acknowledged the process is one that engenders frustration from contractors and others who must frequently apply for permits in Pittsfield. 

"Anything short of physical violence, and this will be a good meeting," he quipped as the informal discussion began. 

Providing more Internet tools for residents and exploring new software options for expediting the permitting process were among some of the possibilities cited.
   
"We are working with the IT department trying to develop some technology," said Building Commissioner Gerald Garner  "We're talking about doing some online permitting, where you'd be able fill out permits online." 

Fast Facts
• Pittsfield deals with 2,000 to 2,400 permits a year
• Application forms have gone from 1 page to 10
• Permitting has to follow federal & state laws as well as city ordinances

Building officials told the audience that there was little they could do to simplify the actual permitting and inspection requirements, most of which are set out by state and federal legislation and cannot be changed at the local level.

"We've gone from a one-page application 20 years ago, to like 10 pages," said Gardner, "You can blame all the unscrupulous contractors out there for that ... the public has a right to protect itself, and this is how we do it."
   
Builders and permitting officials were largely in agreement, though, that the most significant factor in permitting the city has control over is staffing. Contractors cited turnaround time of permitting as the single biggest issue for them because the existing staff is spread too thin to absorb the volume.
   
That volume, Gardner said, is around 2,000-2,400 applications a year in Pittsfield that must be processed and inspected. 
   
"If you want more inspections, you've got to have more staff," the building commissioner told Bianchi. "If you want the permits to go out faster, you've got to have more staff."

"I've been in business since 1978 in the city of Pittsfield, I've taken out thousands of permits," said Chris Porter of C.R. Porter Builders. "These guys up here, in my opinion, are extremely strapped with what they have to do. They have so many issues that they're covering: signs, the blight issue, zoning issues. There's just way too many things that these guys are doing right now to be able to take care of us."

Receiving permitting in a timely manner is crucial to the city's contractors, Porter told the Mayor. "We feed a lot of families, we pay a lot of bills. We need to get the permits out as fast as we possibly can to maintain our businesses."

Several attendees suggested building professionals might be willing to pay increased fees for some permits if it meant speeding up their applications. 

"None of us would mind paying more, it's the turnaround time," said one contractor. In a show of hands, about half of those present indicated their agreement with this.
   
City homeowners overall may object to fee increases, however, officials warned. Gardner said that last time he had been before the City Council, recently, to raise fees, "it was scrutinized heavily. They said 'We're not going to see you for another five years, right?' "
   
While no decisive changes to the permitting process were promised at the meeting, several attendees said they were grateful these issues were at least being discussed in the open, and building officials stated that at least some efforts to streamline the process through digital tools are already in the works and builders may begin to see some benefits from these as early as this year.

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