Navigating the Government

By: 
May. 23, 2003

Navigating the Government

Government regulators advise business owners to do their homework and enlist expert assistance to get through the maze of permitting. You can't do it alone.

By Janet Leiser

Associate Editor

Ask a business owner what it was like to construct an office building or expand a plant, and you're likely to hear a groan.

Stories of becoming mired in what seems like endless red tape are plentiful. Delays in obtaining necessary permits are common. And frustration can run high before a project is completed. But there are ways to make the process easier.

"Do your homework," says Walter Morey, Sarasota's general manager of permitting and inspection services. "Find out what the minimum requirements are (for your project)."

Sarasota County planning official Sharon Tarman says it is important to be an informed consumer. She adds, "Go to the pre-submittal meeting (with planning officials) even if you've hired an engineering/architectural firm."

Manatee County Building Department Director Jim Lee agrees. "From my standpoint," he says, "it's best if the business owner comes in and talks to us prior to beginning the process. Make an appointment with a building official to discuss complicated issues. Time up front saves time on the end."

Lee adds, "There's a lot of help at the planning department. There are various people who guide you through the process."

In Sarasota County, there are two development coordinators - Tarman and Mary Beth Humphreys - to help business owners.

Tip: Don't be in a hurry.

Even under the best of circumstances, a commercial project takes at least a year from start to finish, Tarman says. If the project is a Development of Regional Impact (DRI), an owner can expect to spend years obtaining the necessary permits and completing construction.

Morey estimates it takes at least six months to rezone property and another six months to complete the site and development process. He adds, "Sometimes it's a year before construction starts. It depends on the complexity."

Lee says it definitely takes longer to get to construction if property must be rezoned. Rezoning take months and requires the help of experts such as a consultant or land use attorney. The process is even longer if a decision is appealed to the county commission.

Plus, there are numerous codes that must be met to ensure a building will be in compliance with fire safety codes, landscaping requirements and parking area availability.

As for permitting on commercial projects, Lee says: "We have target dates where we try to get permits out. But that depends on how many reviews have to be done and how many problems there are with the permits."

"This is a long, tedious process," Tarman says. No two projects are alike, and there are many considerations, such as building setbacks and natural resource issues such as wetlands, tortoises and eagles' nests to worry about - for starters.

Most commercial projects require the approval of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which looks at the effect the project will have on stormwater runoff and water retention.

"And depending on where the project is located, it also might require the approval of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection," Tarman says. "Our utility reviewer will tell them if they need DEP approval."

She suggests that owners wait until after they've completed the first round of permitting reviews to apply for a building permit. "When you have to change out sheets and revise building plans, you're charged for the changes," she says.

Remember, Morey says, that building permits won't be issued until after the land development review is completed.

Tip: Hire experts.

One of the most common misperceptions Tarman encounters in her job is that people think they can do a commercial construction project on their own. "They can't," she says, "because of the level of detail we need and the certifications we need. You have to hire someone to this for you."

Morey says, "You do need the knowledge of design professions. It would be a major struggle without them. For the most part, commercial construction requires an engineer or architect or both."

Tip: Be exact with bids.

When an owner puts out bids or receives bids, Tarman says, "Make sure that everyone who gives you a bid is on the same page and that you're asking for the same things from everyone. Be very specific on what you're requesting. If it's not spelled out on what they give you back, ask for details."

Tip: Heed expert advice.

Another problem planning officials run into is that business owners sometimes have unrealistic ideas on how the project should look or be built, and their ideas don't comply with regulations, she says.

For instance, a building can't be too close to property lines because of setback requirements and a building can't be too big for the size of the property.

"Sometimes the people will decide they want something that is just not feasible for the site," Tarman says. "Listen to the experts."

BASICS OF THE

GOVERNMENT PROCESS

× Obtain proper zoning (if a change is required).

×Submit site plan with appropriate variances to land development services, which involves "horizontal construction" such as utilities, roads, landscaping, parking, fire suppression, handicapped accessibility requirements, stormwater runoff and stormwater retention.

×Apply to Southwest Florida Water Management District while awaiting county approval (usually required).

×Apply to Florida Department of Environmental Protection, if required.

×Then obtain building permit.

×Throughout construction, there'll be periodic inspections.

×After final inspection, a certificate of occupancy will be issued after required modifications are completed.

WHERE TO CALL

Manatee County

1112 Manatee Ave., 2nd Floor, Bradenton.

Website: www.co.manatee.fl.us/

Planner on Call - (941) 749-3070

Building Department - (941) 749-3078

Sarasota County

Cattlemen Road Complex

1301 Cattlemen Road, Sarasota

Website: www.co.sarasota.fl.us/services/default.asp

Planning Department - (941) 951-5140

1160 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota.

Sharon Tarman (941) 861-6104

Mary Beth Humphreys - (941) 861-6160

Southwest Florida Water

Management District

6750 Fruitville Rd., Sarasota.

(941) 377-3722

Florida Department

of Environmental Protection

3804 Coconut Palm Drive, Tampa.

(813) 744-6100