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Phoenix Expedites Building Process

By Dustin Gardiner for The Arizona Republic

Phoenix is fast-tracking its process for building plan reviews and inspections, eliminating red tape and making the city a magnet for new companies, supporters of the move say.

The changes have been widely praised by business leaders who say they give Phoenix a competitive edge in attracting employers looking to open their doors quickly and for less money. Few cities around the country have pursued similar outsourcing.

But the issue has sparked a debate over how far the city should go to coax development: At what point does reducing direct government oversight of building projects become a safety risk?

City planning officials are beginning to implement changes recommended by a 125-member task force charged with finding ways to streamline the development process. Council members approved the last of the new policies earlier this month.

The centerpiece of the overhaul is expansion of a self-certification program that allows architects and structural engineers to review their own building plans to ensure that they comply with city code.

Once building plans are submitted through the program, a permit is guaranteed within 24 hours. The option is available to those who undergo training and random audits, though it excludes some projects, including high-rises, stadiums, buildings on hillsides and hazardous occupancies such as chemical plants.

Although city leaders were mostly united in backing such expedited plan reviews, there was a fierce ideological divide over an attempt to take it a step further and privatize more building inspections.

When a new building is constructed in the city, it generally goes through a three-step approval process to ensure it meets all zoning, building and safety codes: A site-layout plan is approved; detailed building plans are reviewed and a permit issued; and an inspector evaluates the project and issues the final certificate of occupancy.

Debra Stark, Phoenix planning and development director, said while the city was willing to streamline the second part of the process with self-certification for plan review, it cannot give up safety inspections — its final line of defense against potential problems.

Frank Piccioli, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 2960, said he opposed privatizing inspections because of the risk to safety. He said city inspectors bring an independent, unbiased set of eyes to the building sites they examine.

Council members did take some steps to speed up the inspection process, adopting a policy requiring a 24-hour turnaround time on requests. They also approved a program in which private contractors will be allowed to conduct inspections for non-life-safety items, such as landscaping and the green building code.

Details of how the changes might be implemented are still being reviewed by city staff. Their recommendations are expected to come back to the council by late October.

Read more at AZCentral