Portland reveals new ‘fast track’ permitting system

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PORTLAND — City officials have introduced a new permitting system they say will separate small-scale home repairs from larger scale projects, and in effect, speed up turnaround times for both types of applications.

The system is one of several steps being taken by the city in 2013 to respond to years of criticism that permitting in Portland is cumbersome and hampers investment in properties, both at a residential and commercial level.

Now, city leaders are moving toward a goal of allowing homeowners and office managers to flip open a laptop and file a permit application without ever setting foot in City Hall.

The permit streamlining effort involves a big push forward with new technology, City Planner Jeffrey Levine said.

“We’re trying to make it easier for people to submit applications electronically,” Levine said. “Eventually, we’d like for people to be able to submit applications from the comfort of their own homes, but we’re not quite there yet.”

Two publicly accessible computer work stations have been installed at the city’s inspections office to allow applicants to enter their information directly into the city’s system, while a two-month-old application database program is being used to gauge how long it takes for a city to give builders the go-ahead to begin building.

While the application tracking system is still being refined and accurate citywide turnaround times haven’t been compiled yet, city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said some of the early data provided by the system have given credence to past gripes – previously hard to quantify – about the slow gears of city permitting.

“It can take up to 30 days for something that’s fairly straightforward, like stairs or a deck,” Clegg said.

Among the most visible streamlining steps has been the city’s effort to equip site inspectors with mobile devices, so they can access the applications remotely for instant updates.

“It allows them to tie into our online database system, and if they’re doing an inspection, they can type in the information from the field rather than coming back to the office,” Levine said. “It seems to be working pretty well. I wouldn’t call it a panacea, but it’s just one more thing to help work get done. They don’t have to say, ‘Now I need to go back to the office and write all this data up,’ they can go right from there to the next inspection site.”

The latest change to city permitting is the “fast track” process, in which projects ranging in complexity from a new handrail to a new home addition can qualify to be split from the pile of larger project applications and reviewed more expediently.

“Those simpler applications would be approved within a matter of days, as opposed to a month or greater,” Clegg said. “And because that work would be reduced for the permitting staff, they’ll then have more time to focus on the harder applications.”

In February, the city launched its slate of permit streamlining efforts with the announcement of “predevelopment office hours,” intended to provide developers facetime with city regulators so they could foresee and avoid code infractions before any paperwork is submitted.

During the high-profile 2011 Portland mayoral campaign, the city’s permitting process was a major issue for candidates, many of whom called it cumbersome and insisted a necessary overhaul.

Mayor Michael Brennan, who emerged victorious from the 15-candidate field, vowed after the election to take steps to make the city friendlier to development. Just more than five months after taking office, Brennan hired Jared Clark of Government Consulting Group to spearhead a thorough review of city inspections and permitting, with a goal of speeding up the processes and encouraging business growth.

Similarly, the city retained a research team from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service last fall to conduct a study of the city’s permitting processes compared to other New England cities.

Those studies helped guide the streamlining steps the city is now taking, Levine said.

Sidebar Elements

Portland code enforcement officer Don McPherson, left, goes over electronic site plans on Diamond Street June 28 with Ed Hume of PC Construction. McPherson now files his code inspections from the field with his laptop.