Marco Island construction permits decrease amid Hurricane Irma backlog

A house is under construction at 1873 Dogwood Dr. on July 12, 2019.

Construction permits in Marco Island decreased amid the backlog caused by Hurricane Irma, according to data provided by the Building Services Division (BSD).

The city of Marco Island registered a decrease in permit applications, permits issued and inspections performed from January to May 2019 compared to the same period in 2018.

The BSD reported 4,184 application permits from January to May of 2019 compared to 5,566 during the same period last year, a 25 percent decrease.

Similarly, the division issued 3,465 permits between January and May of 2019 compared to 4,607 during the same period last year. As for inspections, BSD recorded 13,085 between January and May of 2019 compared to 15,185 during the same period in 2018.

More:Hurricane Irma: How Marco Island weathered the storm

Raul Perez, the chief Building official of the city of Marco Island, said there is still more work to be done. "Our numbers are not back to normal yet but our time frames (to respond to permit requests) are getting better," Perez said.

As of Monday, there were 80 permits pending to be processed, according to Perez. However, three weeks ago, only 12 permits were pending. "With a hurricane, it's hard to say this is the same amount we are going to get next month," Perez said. "That number changes on a daily or weekly basis."

This line chart shows the spike in building permit requests after Hurricane Irma made landfall in Marco Island on September 2017.

The time frame to respond and approve a permit request depends on many variables and it is challenging to keep track of, according to Perez. Permit requests go through a funnel-type system where all requests are initially processed by BSD, regardless of the permit type, before going to the appropriate divisions. These divisions are BSD (includes building, electrical, plumbing and mechanical), planning and zoning, utilities, fire and public works. "The more different disciplines that have to be on the permit, it adds on to the time frame." Perez said. 

Eric Condee, co-owner of a Marco Island-based cooling and electric service company, said the company has had an overall good experience with the permit approval process. "There has been more delays in some of the types of the building permits," Condee said. "We haven't had much that has hindered our business." His family-owned business, Condee Cooling and Electric, has been serving Marco Island since 1969.

More:Marco Island Building Department overworked, understaffed one year after Hurricane Irma

What caused the backlog?

Hurricane Irma certainly played an important role in causing a backlog of building permits. Many Marco Islanders suddenly found themselves requesting building permits to repair or rebuild their homes after Hurricane Irma.

From January to September of 2017, Marco Island averaged 571 permit applications per month. During the same period in 2018, the city averaged 1,032 applications, an 81 percent increase.

During that period, issued permits increased from 584 to 859 (47 percent increase) and inspections performed increased from 15,440 to 30,075 (95 percent increase).

The year 2018 ended with 11,348 permit requests. As a comparison, 2017 registered 8,190 requests, 2016 registered 6,326 and 2015 registered 6,915. If the decreasing pattern continues in 2019, Marco Island will get closer to pre-Hurricane Irma levels.

Three days after Irma made landfall in Marco Island as a Category 3 hurricane, BSD reopened its doors for business and many of its personnel worked during and immediately after the hurricane. "It didn't really stop," said chief Building official Raul Perez III. "A lot of out staff worked during the storm, either at the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) or on damage assessment here on the island."

A sign at the entrance of Marco Island City Hall says that the Building Services Division (BSD) is indefinitely closed  to the public on Fridays to "expedite outstanding permits." BSD started doing this in the first quarter of 2018, more than a year ago, according to building official Raul Perez.

The permit backlog pushed BSD to indefinitely close their offices to the public every Friday. They have been doing this since the first quarter of 2018. "We will use this time to expedite outstanding permits," a temporary sign at City Hall said. "Inspections will be performed as usual." 

Perez said that Irma wasn't the only reason why there is a backlog. "It was not just Irma," Perez said. "We also had a staffing issue and when you combine both it just makes the perfect storm."

When the hurricane hit, according to Perez, four out of 16 full-time positions were vacant and four out of the 12 full-time employees had been with the city less than a year. "They were in some level of training, which left us with about 8 staff members that were seasoned." Perez said.

Perez said there was and still is a statewide shortage of inspectors pushing Marco Island to compete with other municipalities that can offer better salaries and benefits. "One of the things we had to do was adjust the pay scale," Perez said.  "Before we had inspectors starting at $40,000 and we bumped that up to be a little bit more competitive." 

"Once we did that the applications started to actually come in but one of the challenges we had at the time was that there were so many vacant positions in other municipalities and they have a full pension, they have a higher pay and all that stuff, so we were really struggling," Perez said.

Until recently, all vacant inspector positions and other positions had been filled. "We filled out last vacant position a few months ago," Perez said, but on Monday, Perez informed Marco Eagle that a permit clerk resigned. "That plays a role in how we keep up," Perez said.

What contractors and homeowners can do

Marco Island's high season for construction permit requests is from March to October, according to Perez. "Since we have a large seasonal community and most condos have moratoriums during season, most of the condo remodels occur once snowbirds head back up north for spring and summer," Perez said. "We have 90 high risers and I believe 164 multi-family structures total. Thus, they make up a large portion of work."

Daniel J. Smith, director of Community Affairs, speaks during a Marco Island Planning Board meeting on July 5, 2019.

Daniel J. Smith, director of Community Affairs in Marco Island, said that contractors can help speed up the permit process by making sure they are submitting all the required information. He said that, in occasions, contractors may submit the wrong survey or an illegible permit request.  "Which means [...] it doesn't have the information that we need to approve it according to code," Smith said.

Smith said that if one of the five divisions does not approve a building permit request, it goes back to the contractor and he or she may respond the next day or the next month. Even when contractors make changes in just one part of the permit request, all divisions must again review the totality of the permit request. "What happens though is that when (contractors) resubmit, all these people have to review it because, if there is a change here, Building Services has to see what that change is because maybe that doesn't meet their code," Smith said

Smith recommended contractors make sure their permit requests have all the required information.

"We are here to protect the community," Smith said. "We are here to make sure that the product that they contracted is done to minimum code [...] according to the state of Florida and Marco Island standards." 

Useful tools

  • Citizens Self Service portal (CSS): Registered contractors can submit the building permit requests and accompanying documentation 24/7 using CSS. Contractors are encouraged schedule building inspections using CSS and Marco Islanders can search for building permits going back to fall of 1998.
  • Qless: Qless is a cellphone application that lets you schedule an appointment or wait-in-line without actually needing to be in City Hall. The application will alert you when it is about to be your turn. Look for the free "QLess" app in your app store, for iPhone or Android.
  • Call the Permitting Phone 239-389-5059: The calls go to a ticketing system to make sure that calls are not overlooked. This helps the permit clerks share the call load and provides analytics.