With the resignation of Apalachicola’s chief building official moving on to another job, the city’s building department is an ideal position to make changes to how it handles the entire building approval process.
For some, they will be much overdue.
Tammy Owens stepped down as building inspector July 14, believed to be for another job in the private sector. It was a month earlier than she had originally planned to leave, an earlier departure due to friction within the office.
Also two weeks ago, Al Ingle, former chairman of the planning and zoning board, issued a three-page “expansion” on why he had decided on June 24 to step off of P and Z entirely.
He voiced no specific problems with Owens, but rather with the entire building department, which encompasses permitting, inspection, planning and zoning and code enforcement matters.
Ingle wrote that he had become frustrated by the manner in which the issues related to the Gibson Inn expansion had been handled, stressing that “the lack of information” from the building department had failed to specify what had been reviewed and approved.
“The building department omission of key project attributes (would) have changed the approval criteria,” he wrote, noting that the department had failed to inform city commissioners of the sidewalk encroachment, and of the Architectural Review Board’s need to decide whether to allow exceedance of the 35-foot height limit to accommodate an elevator.
P & Z eventually approved, with Bobby Miller casting the lone dissenting vote, to allow a three-foot space over the 35-foot height for placing equipment for the elevator shaft.
Miller asked whether there was any penalty for not securing prior approval, and speaking as a member of the public, Apalachicola resident Bonnie Davis, who is active with the citizens group HAPPI, pointed out that there was potential for a $500 per day fine that could include not securing prior approval.
City Commissioner Despina George told P and Z that the elevator shaft details were not mentioned on the original plans. “They did not show the elevator bulkhead, the venting and the widow’s walk,” she said.
Ingle detailed how there had been sufficient time for P & Z to address the many lingering issues with the Gibson Inn. He said there had been “incorrect, missing, misleading, unreadable visuals accompanying verbal statements from the many presenter(s),” and described the city’s land development code as “rigid, specific, unalterable” that was hard-pressed to address a project of this magnitude.
“On the day of the city commission’s balcony encroachment approval, the material for the balconies was already staged on the property and ready for assembly,” he wrote.
Ingle was critical of the process that he said afforded insufficient time to address “legitimate concerns.”
He said the reason these problems occurred was due to P & Z having approved a final design which really was a preliminary design, and that therefore any remedy for changes would have been to return the matter to the P & Z and architectural review board.
“This would have increased the time for construction and its cost,” Ingle wrote. “The building department had to decide, without precedent, as to how to proceed. We had mistakes made in the building department under unique circumstances without adequate guidance or oversight.”
Ingle recommended that the city consider revising its approval process to better accommodate review of large projects.
“Apalachicola is a small coastal town and has never experienced the kind of growth seen in the last few years,” he wrote. “The current P & Z approval process is based on small projects where completed plans are submitted without further need for additional review and approval. With large projects, the builder is not expected to complete all the required engineering for what may turn out to be a dead end.”
Ingle said he would like to see the city rely on a process similar to how The St. Joe Company handles its large projects. This would entail having P & Z conduct the preliminary review and approval, which would allow the builder to continue with the required engineering while knowing that “a similar form of the initial application will be allowed.”
P & Z would also conduct the final review and approval, including all engineering documents. There could be no changes to the final approved plan with an OK from P & Z.
“Unapproved changes solicit fines and possible reversion to approved plans, regardless of cost,” Ingle wrote. “The building department’s only responsibility is ensuring that construction is to code and follows approved engineering documents.”
At this month’s regular city commission meeting. George secured approval, through a narrow 3-2 vote, to host a workshop on building department issues on Thursday, Aug. 3 at 5 p.m. Mayor Brenda Ash and Commissioner Donna Duncan voted no.
“I personally don’t think a workshop is going to resolve the issues,” said Ash, arguing instead to bring in a professional consultant to offer training to the building department staff.
As the commissioners sought to work out a time for the workshop, Ash said would not be able to make the Aug. 3 proposed date. “I’m OK with not being in attendance,” she said.
In public comments, Davis urged that the approval process for projects be transparent and that rules be consistently applied, with adequate and timely public notice.
“A workshop is a great idea to lay out exactly what the policy and procedures ought to be for applying,” she said.
She also called for the city to record both its P & Z and Board of Adjustment meetings, instead of relying entirely on minutes.
“Minutes are not descriptive, they’re just summaries,” Davis said. “It shouldn’t be a burden on the public to say ‘I want to know what happened.’”
As the city moves to hire a successor to Owens, it has brought in Gary Millender, who used to be the county’s building official, on an interim basis. The month-to-month contract is for $3,500 a month.