While response to the coronavirus does not appear to have significantly slowed down construction projects in and around Richmond, the social-distancing required by local, state and federal governments is presenting some challenges to securing permits and inspections.
Area building inspections offices are imposing different procedures for applying for various permits and inspections, in light of the public health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak.
The offices for the City of Richmond and for Chesterfield and Henrico counties have remained closed since Monday, while Hanover and Goochland counties’ offices are open with reduced operations. Despite the closures for the more populous localities, those offices are continuing to process applications remotely and perform inspections, albeit with different approaches.
While Richmond City Hall remains closed through at least the rest of this month, the city’s permits and inspections bureau is providing services through its online permit portal, though only for residential permits. Commercial permits are not being accepted during the closure, according to an announcement on the city’s website.
The announcement states that inspections requested for days that City Hall is closed are cancelled and must be rescheduled. Third-party inspections are allowed through the city’s recently adopted 48-hour policy, through which applicants can hire private inspectors or firms to conduct inspections and plan reviews if city staff is unable to do so within two working days of a request being made.
Henrico also is allowing third-party inspections, in some cases without prior county approval needed. Regular inspections are continuing, though interior inspections of occupied dwellings are being suspended. Such inspections are still required for compliance with building code. Residential inspection surcharge fees for new homes also are suspended.
Henrico has put up drop boxes in its administration building lobby for permit submittals, with county staff providing responses via email or phone with instructions for picking up permits that are approved. Permit and plan reviews are being conducted remotely, and communications with applicants are being handled by phone or email, with the county warning of potential service delays due to the back-and-forth actions.
Chesterfield likewise is continuing with inspections, with requests and permit applications accepted via mail or commercial courier. A pickup and drop-off cart is located in the breezeway outside the community development building, but walk-up service inside the building is suspended.
Chesterfield is not accepting new zoning, site plan or subdivision applications due to reduced staffing. The county is aiming to resume accepting new development applications by April 6, according to an email to developers obtained by BizSense.
Homebuilders keeping busy
A week into the office closures, the new processes largely have kept things moving, said Danna Markland, CEO of the Home Building Association of Richmond, which is compiling and updating each office’s operating status on its website.
“The localities have done a really good job working with us to keep operations open despite closures,” Markland said. “For now, most localities are still in service and able to operate from a distance without personal contact. But so much of it is uncertain.”
Among the concerns Markland said she’s heard from association members is making sure area courthouses remain open to allow for recordation of plats and other documents. She said builders also are weighing whether to keep model homes and sales offices open, despite market demand holding steady so far.
“Contracts are still being written; homes are still being purchased. The activity from the consumer side, there’s still very much an interest,” she said.
“They’re still working to deliver homes, and for the most part everyone is open and conducting business, albeit from a distance.”
Commercial permits slowing
On the commercial side, activity is likewise holding steady, said Tim Klabunde, a principal with engineering firm Timmons Group, which has its hands on numerous projects around town.
“The market is holding tight at the moment,” Klabunde said. “We’re trying to adapt to what the market is bringing to us right now. Nothing is ideal; this obviously isn’t what Timmons Group or any other company wants right now. But we’re working on that making-lemonade-out-of-lemons philosophy at the moment.”
Klabunde said the only slowdown to speak of that he’s heard in the industry is likewise on the permitting side, because governments are busy responding to the pandemic.
“We’re seeing general contractors are having a hard time getting different permits, occupancy permits, or just getting some of the normal paperwork that happens in the flow of construction underway,” Klabunde said.
“While I know that the local governments here are obviously trying to handle things with the crisis, I feel like they’re actually doing a good job of trying to overcome the obstacles that they are working through,” he said. “We still see people being responsive and trying their best to help us move projects forward.”
Markland said a challenge she’s observed has been with the city’s third-party inspections, in that the policy requires city approval of outside firms that she said has been creating delays. She said the policy was being updated with lists of firms that would be pre-approved before the coronavirus became an issue.
“We never had those lists approved, so now what you have is a bunch of folks trying to get these third-party inspections through, and there’s one guy who’s managing that, and I’m sure he’s getting inundated,” she said.
Richmond Building Commissioner Jason Carangelo, who developed the policy, and oversees the permits and inspections office, could not be reached for comment.
While such challenges are being recognized, Markland said local governments in general have been helpful in trying to keep construction activity moving.
Referring to the counties specifically, Markland said, “They’ve all been very willing to work with us and try to keep these services moving despite disruptions in their offices. They’ve had a great level of customer service, appreciate the difficult position that everyone is in, and want to be sure that we can still get COs (certificates of occupancy).
“There’s been maybe about a day delay on most services, and that’s to be expected as we work through this,” she said. “Whether that is sustainable due to outside factors is yet to be seen. That’s the question on everyone’s minds.”