Anchorage Approves Independent Engineer Approval

Originally published by: Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 25, 2012

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The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night approved a proposal sponsored by Adam Trombley to allow some home builders to hire independent engineers to sign off on structural plans, bypassing the city building department.

The point is to speed up building permits.

The vote was 9-2, with Elvi Gray-Jackson and Harriet Drummond voting no.

The city building department came out against the idea, saying it would be a conflict of interest for builders to hire their own reviewers, and would "benefit a small subset of the building industry, at the expense of the safety and welfare of the general public."

But Mayor Dan Sullivan said that he wouldn't oppose the change.

Sullivan said he had asked Trombley to get him examples of places where independent reviews have been tried, to talk to supporters and opponents and flesh out the proposal, and Trombley did all that.

"I'm willing to try something new," Sullivan said.

The law gives builders the choice of having structural plan and fire code reviews for single family and two-family houses conducted privately or done by the city building department. In any case, the city would still be in charge of other reviews, such as zoning and flood control. And the city would inspect houses as they are built to make sure they meet code requirements.

Structural reviews are to tell if house plans are designed to handle snow, wind and earthquakes, have safe windows and stairs and the like.

A private reviewer would have to meet certain qualifications under the new law.. To legally review the structure, a reviewer would have to be a registered structural engineer or a civil engineer with experience in structural engineering.

Trombley said the idea for the proposal came out of a joint meeting between builders and city officials last spring.

He said the alternate route to plan review won't necessarily be cheaper for builders, but it should be faster.

The Anchorage Home Builders Association came out strongly in support of Trombley's proposal.

Before the Assembly voted Tuesday, a number of builders spoke in favor of it, and some people spoke against it.

Builder Matt Matthews, a supporter, said, "Our name is on the houses we build. We're not going to cut any corners. The problem is the time it takes to get the permit."

Paul Michelsohn, whose company builds mostly custom homes, said he has had permits take from four weeks to three months.

"I would use this ordinance if the time and the need arose," Michelsohn said.

Architect Jonathan Steele, a member of the city building review board, said he has found city plan review comments to be reasonable, and a benefit to projects.

Another architect, Stephan Paliwoda, said the ordinance is a bad idea. "Building department review is time honored and proven throughout the U.S.," Paliwoda said. "It's a good system. It's a trusted system."

SBC EDITOR's NOTE: Here is an earlier story outlining the bill when it was introduced:

Anchorage Assembly member Adam Trombley has proposed a law that would allow some homebuilders to bypass the city for plan reviews.

An independent engineer would review the structural house plans instead.

It would speed up permitting, and the professionals eligible to conduct the plan review would have a higher level of credentials than the municipal staff members doing the job, Trombley said.

"The big thing to remember is this is what the industry asked for," Trombley said in an interview. "This is something they say will help them."

City building officials said letting a private party review builders' plans for houses instead of requiring a sign-off from the building department is not in citizens' best interest.

The Assembly is scheduled to hold a public hearing and consider the proposal Tuesday. Trombley has two co-sponsors, Bill Starr and Dick Traini, and some other members of the Assembly said they're leaning in favor of it, too.

Mayor Dan Sullivan has yet to say what he thinks about it.

But the city's Development Services Division came out resoundingly against it last week in a statement written by deputy division director Sharen Walsh.

"Most importantly," the statement said, "adoption of the ordinance appears to only benefit a small subset of the building industry, at the expense of the safety and welfare of the general public."

MAKING HOUSES SAFE

The proposed law would give builders the option of having structural plan and fire code reviews for single family and two-family houses conducted privately. The city would still be in charge of other reviews, such as checking whether the house matches zoning for the area, and whether flood and storm-water requirements are met.

And the city would still be responsible for inspecting houses as they are built to make sure they meet code requirements.

Structural reviews, the ones that could be done privately, are to determine if a house as designed can support the weight of itself, plus handle snow on the roof, high winds and earthquakes, for example. The reviewer also looks at features such as windows and stairs to make sure they're safe, Walsh said.

A private reviewer would have to meet certain qualifications under Trombley's proposal. To legally review the structure, a reviewer would have to be a registered structural engineer or a civil engineer with experience in structural engineering.

STREAMLINING

Trombley said the idea for the proposal came out of a joint meeting between builders and city officials last spring.

He said the alternate route to plan review won't necessarily be cheaper for builders, but it should be faster.

The building department said it takes four to five days for a review to get through, Trombley said. But then the department sends comments that a builder has to respond to, and more comments go back and forth after that, he said.

Architect Mark Ivy said he had one house take more than eight months to get through the building department, and it was unchanged at the end.

"We feel we have designs that meet the code every time," he said. "So why are we getting challenged every time?"

He likes the idea of having an independent structural engineer approve plans instead.

The Anchorage Home Builders Association is strongly in support of Trombley's proposal. In a letter to a city board, the association said, "This is the single most important effort put forth by the homebuilders to streamline the regulatory process for residential plan review."

"We wouldn't be before the Assembly if there weren't problems," said Bill Taylor of Colony Builders, one of 30-some people who signed the association's letter.

OBJECTIONS

Community development director Jerry Weaver said the city's residential plan reviews are done quickly.

"We have some of the best turnaround times for plans in the nation, four-to-ten days," Weaver said. When plans are rejected and take longer to get through, it's because they don't meet code, he said.

Walsh, the deputy development services director, in the division's position statement, cited a number of concerns with the proposal:

• The private reviewer would be hired by the owner of the project. That's a conflict of interest, she said.

• Some places that have tried independent reviewers found during audits that a significant number of the approved plans didn't comply with building codes; or the city discontinued independent reviews; or both. In Phoenix, she said, one-fourth of the reviews contained errors.

(Trombley said there are other places, such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Las Vegas, that have successful independent review programs.)

• Independent structural reviews wouldn't necessarily shorten the time to get a permit or complete construction, she said. The city will still need to do other reviews. And building inspectors will raise any code compliance issues they find when they inspect in the field, which could delay things, she said.

• The city's building rules for houses would no longer meet the minimum requirements for getting a rating from the Insurance Services Organization. That group provides information to home insurance companies. In addition, letting builders bypass the city structural reviews would result in a 10 percent increase in flood insurance premiums for homeowners with property in a flood plain, she said. At last count, that's 477 homeowners.

A statement from the Home Builders Association takes issue with the city's assertion that flood insurance rates will rise, saying it's not supported.

'WORKS OUTSIDE THE BOWL'

Trombley said there are already areas of the municipality -- including Eagle River, Chugiak, Girdwood and Stuckagain Heights -- where city plan reviews aren't required.

The plan review requirement is only enforced in the Anchorage Bowl.

"Show me empirical data that the construction in those places (outside the Bowl) is of a lower quality," he said.

Assembly member Debbie Ossiander, who said Trombley's proposal seems logical to her, lives in Chugiak.

"My experience generally in Chugiak and Eagle River is that not going through the city works pretty well. I don't get complaints about the structural integrity of houses. I'm not afraid of it."

Ossiander said it isn't clear one way or the other how home insurance rates would be affected.

Ossiander said she was concerned about how much the independent structural review would actually be used, but has been assured by a couple of major builders that they would go that route.

Assembly member Harriet Drummond said she's not inclined to support the proposal.

"I haven't heard of any great outcry of needing to go in that direction," Drummond said. "It only seems to benefit a few developers."

Assemblyman Patrick Flynn said he doesn't know how he'll vote. "This has come up repeatedly for the last 30 years," Flynn said. "It's never actually been done. I'm still talking to people about some of the whys."

Former conservative Mayor Tom Fink opposed an effort to enact something similar to Trombley's proposal in 1994.

Some of the reasons cited by Fink at the time are the same that opponents of the plan raise today -- that the city would be cut out of the structural design process, but later city inspectors would find deficiencies in the field. And that non-city reviewers would interpret the code in individual ways, leading to a lack of consistency.

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