Vice mayor says builders find Johnson City 'difficult,' calls for discussion

David Floyd • Oct 6, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Johnson City Vice Mayor Joe Wise says commissioners have heard for a long time that builders find the city "difficult to deal with."

"Those concerns are too easily dismissed as par for the course when dealing with builders the city is tasked with regulating," Wise wrote in a Sept. 30 email to Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock, City Manager Pete Peterson, Development Services Director Preston Mitchell and members of the Johnson City Commission. "As a city, we need to balance the health and safety of our build environment in collaboration with our community's builders and developers."

In an effort to address those concerns, Wise asked officials to organize a round-table discussion between key city staff and six to eight active city builders.

The meeting would offer an opportunity for stakeholders to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the city's processes.

“I believe it is essential that the commission better understand the feedback coming from builders and developers,” Wise wrote. “It is in understanding their feedback that we might influence the city’s corporate culture such that we encourage staff to help builders in navigating the standards so their projects can move efficiently forward. We need to encourage a culture that places value on being technically right and just importantly being helpful.”

Wise said Friday that the large number of different parties involved in approving a project, including inspectors and officials involved in planning review, can make it difficult for builders or developers to determine which of the hundreds of city employees they need to approach and the order in which they should talk to them.

"Developers tell of experiences where they have an inspection and get a punch list ... of things that need to be addressed before final approval can happen, and then perhaps someone different comes out to do the second inspection and they find two or three more things that need to be done differently," Wise said. "I think where the developer or builder is coming from is a sense that those things were true last week when someone was here. Why couldn't I hear that then?"

Wise said there could be legitimate reasons for that breakdown, but he's hopeful that the city can create a system that fosters cooperation.

Mitchell said Friday that in the roughly 10 months that he's worked at the city he's only heard criticism from a couple of design professionals.

“Those are not really criticisms about the development process,” he said. “It’s more about just making sure that staff is consistent in their interpretation and consistent in the application of codes and processes.”

Because of their positions as public officials, Mitchell said commissioners receive a larger and more varied spectrum of comments from developers than he does.

“I think it’s easier to go to an elected official as opposed to coming straight to the department head,” he said.

Every project that the development services department handles, Mitchell said, has a different set of circumstances. While one development may have a different set of considerations than another development, Johnson City’s codes apply across the board, Mitchell said, and the city has to determine how to make everything fit.

Mitchell said he supports the idea of holding a round-table discussion.

“I think it’s great,” he said “I don’t think there’s any harm in that whatsoever. I don’t think you can ever over-communicate.”

Commissioners discussed the organization of the round table during their meeting on Thursday. Wise mentioned that the spirit of the discussion has less to do with the city’s codes and ordinances and more with its process. The codes and ordinances are the “rules of the road,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re talking about, ‘Well, let’s change the rules,’ so much as let’s make sure we’re doing everything in our process to support the builders and developers who are improving our tax base,” he said.

Brock asked Wise to work with Peterson to organize the meeting.

Wise said Friday that this discussion comes at a time when the city is issuing a lower than normal number of building permits, which could be because builders are choosing to go elsewhere.

"If that's the case we need to figure out quickly and certainly and completely what those factors are so that we can address them," he said.

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