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How governments are dealing with rise in building permits
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Hall County building inspector John Estelle visits a home under construction near the White County line Tuesday, June 18, 2019, for a routine inspection. - photo by Scott Rogers

Lamar Carver recalled the 2008 government approval of a 2,736-home North Hall development.

“At one point, it looked like I needed one (building inspector) there every day,” said Hall County’s chief building official. “The economy turned (down), and it didn’t (develop). Had we jumped out there and hired that person, we’d either be hunting something for that person to do or trying to lay somebody off.”

Fast forward 10 years later. A surging economy has meant a significant uptick in building inspections, pressuring area governments to ensure residents are stepping into safe homes and businesses.

But that doesn’t mean a hiring binge is ahead.

“You don’t get out over your skis too far,” said Carver, who is looking to add maybe a couple of positions over the next couple of years.

“Basically, what you want to do is make sure you grow (the department) slowly. If you (hire) because you have a busy year, then the next year things slow down, you wind up struggling to justify them.”

He likened property development to a poker game.

“In a poker game, there are people who fold,” Carver said. “They go through the whole process and they’ve got money invested, but yet they fold because they realize they don’t have a winning hand. It’s better to fold than to lose.”

The $700 million Atlanta River Walk in South Hall is an example of a huge development that couldn’t get off the ground. And just recently, in Gainesville, Parkside on the Square folded after an agreement couldn’t be reached between the developer, bank and builder.

Still, the number of building permits in unincorporated Hall County has jumped over the years, going from 1,916 in 2012 to 3,292 in 2018.

The number of building inspections has soared, as well, increasing to 15,171 in 2018 from 8,056 in 2010.

Unlike past years, several projects — particularly ones in South Hall — are getting underway soon after government approvals. Work is well underway on a 255-home subdivision off McEver Road in West Hall, approved in spring 2018.

“We have several projects that are actually happening,” Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said.

Oakwood is adjusting somewhat to the trend, planning to hire a new code enforcement officer who will be assuming building inspector duties.

Driving the change is more of a refocus of the police department, where code enforcement duties had been performed — that is, until a couple of recent retirements gave the city a chance to reassess the job.

Still, in retooling the job description, the city saw an opportunity to add building inspections to the title, especially given the city’s recent boom in residential construction.

Oakwood currently has a private company, Bureau Veritas, handling building inspections.

“There was a period of time, when things were kind of slack, it didn’t make much sense to have an on-board building inspector,” Brown has said.

Bureau Veritas will “still handle (inspections at) apartment complexes, commercial, industrial and office (developments),” while the new employee could do “our single-family residential, duplex-type of construction,” Brown said.

“That (outsourcing) is working for us so far, because if they need to put in more inspection effort, they can do that,” he said.

To Carver’s point about hiring prematurely, Brown added, “When you hire full-time people, you’re kind of locked in with the resources that you have or don’t have.”

Gainesville has three inspectors, adding the third one in the past year “because of our load,” said the city’s building official, Joe Davidson. “If we get overwhelmed between (city) budgets, we can get (Bureau Veritas) to help us. As of now, we’re able to handle our workload.”

In going through steps to approve its fiscal 2020 budget, Flowery Branch is taking into account its own response to growth.

The city is looking to add about $130,000 for contracted labor for building inspections and code enforcement, as the city has approved hundreds of homes and apartments since last year.

“There certainly is increased pressure on local governments in regards to building inspections,” said Rich Atkinson, Flowery Branch’s community development director.

“With six active subdivisions, downtown (growth) and a new apartment complex looming, (building inspector Donald) Bowers is extremely busy,” he said.

And because of the growing economy, building inspectors are in high demand.

“We’re still trying to find applicants,” Brown said. “It’s tough out there. There aren’t that many building inspectors that are not already working somewhere else.”

Hall County has four building inspector positions, including one open spot.

“I’ve been looking for about a month now (for a new inspector),” Carver said. “I wanted to take my time and make sure we got the very best candidate — somebody who has a good skill set and … has experience in the field.”

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