By Chris Frost
Oxnard— The Oxnard City Council endorsed changes to the city’s permit process, May 21, which sets the wheels in motion for shorter turnarounds and fewer headaches for residents looking to get a project done in the city.
City Manager Alex Nguyen told the council that shortly after he arrived in 2018, he heard a lot about the permitting process and all the delays.
Additionally, he said Chamber of Commerce CEO Nancy Lindholm expressed a lot of frustration about getting a permit in Oxnard and council members told him that residents were complaining.
Nguyen set out to understand what the problems were in the early fall last year and Assistant City Manager Ashley Golden started process mapping so he would be sure about what to do with additional resources.
“You don’t fix a problem simply on complaints and stories,” Nguyen said. “You fix a problem in this organization by analyzing it, studying it, talking to the people who are impacted, and providing a real set of solutions.”
The city recruited Development Services Director Jeff Lambert, who took the issue from Golden and developed an action plan.
Lambert said many city staffers worked diligently to formulate the plan to come up with phase one of the improvements, with more to come.
“We are collectively going to continue looking at the process,” he said.
Processes and policies are impeding the permit process, he said, and the first process management flow chart he displayed was “scary.”
One piece of the process showed a redo of the planning process that occurred 20 times that the city must fix.
“When you submit a plan check, and then you come back with corrections, we put you in the same line with everybody else,” Lambert said. “That’s what we’ve been doing in the past, and if you come back in with your second plan check to respond to those original comments we provided, you got told to get in line with someone who just filed that day for their first check. That’s not right; that’s not efficient and doesn’t make good use of everybody’s time.”
The city corrected that problem, he said, and when someone comes in for a second or third plan check you go to the top of the line, and there is a new process for someone who turns the project around in a “couple of weeks” instead of 45 days.
“The other thing I noticed is if you’re in the field and make changes; things happen in the field during construction, and the inspectors are not empowered to say that is okay,” he said. “They say that’s not exactly the way the plans show, so stop construction first, go back into plan check, and when you get out of plan check, you can get going again. That’s not a good way to do business, and we’re looking at that, as well.”
He was most horrified by one project that took 127 days to calculate permit fees, which is an anomaly, but many times it takes a month to get that piece of the project done.
“That doesn’t work for us, either,” he said.
The city has inadequate resources, like staffing and technology, which means long wait lines, unpredictable turnaround times, and limited staff availability. E-mails and phone calls, in many instances, are not returned in a reasonable time.
The process is broken, he said, and it places the applicants in a “black hole” when it comes to their project.
The Development Advisory Committee (DAC) needs better communication from all departments, he said, plus an early application of the DAC process, including the preliminary stage.
“If a comment from a city function is not there in the beginning and comes later it’s a surprise, and we want to fix that and make sure we are providing complete information early in the process,” he said. “Minor modifications in the field often require extensive staff review, and it is a common problem.”
Often, plans are routed inconsistently and unclear, and the applicant does not understand what the permit department’s comments are.
“Re-checks are part of the normal process, and we are fixing that already,” Lambert said. “We’ve even had issues with the demolition permits. It’s not necessarily our responsibility because we can’t issue a demolition permit if we haven’t verified the utilities have been removed. Some of that is better coordination with the utility companies to make sure it is a safe environment to issue that permit.”
Engineering also faces small staff issues, which the city is trying to address, plus simple traffic management.
“If you are going to do a project and you have to block streets for some of that project work, you have to come up with a traffic management plan, and that process can be somewhat of a black hole,” he said. “Applicants don’t understand our review; it takes too long, and they get delayed in starting construction while we figure that out.”
Moving forward, Lambert said he wants to motivate the staff to be facilitators and address any issues raised, and value improvements for all development types, from single-family, remodels to large multi-phased projects.
The permit department will establish clear timeline benchmarks for turnaround on applications, prepare details submittal receipts and summary receipts that outline expectations, give the staff additional training on things like affordable housing and historic preservation and act as facilitators, not regulators, and create a solution-oriented clear and available roadmap.
An applicant will now get a checklist, not a small receipt, he said, that will be customized and have checkboxes, so they’ll know who is going to review the project.
“We’ll fill in a blank that says your plan check will be done on this date, so they know this is the date that it will be done,” he said. “Our goal will be to meet that deadline every time.”
During public comments, Lindholm congratulated Golden and Lambert for bringing the item forward and is thrilled the change is on the agenda.
“When the Economic Development Corporation of Oxnard (EDCO) closed their doors three years ago, the number of calls we got at the chamber escalation,” she said. “We used to refer those calls over to EDCO, but we have to track down what’s the project, the case number.”
She supported the staff, who were always helpful, and urged the council to support the item.
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