Puyallup developers and property owners for years have complained of a difficult, long building-permit process.
For the past two years, property owner and builder Craig Shipman has been back and forth with the city over permits to build two homes.
“It was ridiculous how long it took. It took them almost four months to outsource some of this,” Shipman said. “If you have your ducks in a row, it should take two to three weeks for a building permit.”
Shipman said some of his contractor and engineer friends refuse to build in Puyallup.
Even Puyallup’s council members have expressed concerns.
“I want us to get to be known as the friendly, open-for-business permit center,” District 2’s Cyndy Jacobsen said on the dais in September. “We have some reputation hurdles to overcome.”
Council member John Palmer said he has heard complaints about the time it takes to complete the permitting process over the past five to six years. Part of the issue has to do with the system in place, but he contends developing in Puyallup is just more difficult these days.
“A lot of development now occurs on floodplains and steep slopes because a lot of the easy development is already gone. Some of that permitting can be more complicated,” he said. “We want to make sure development is done right.”
The News Tribune asked Puyallup and nearby cities Sumner and Lakewood the average turnaround time for their most requested permits. In some cases, Puyallup was on par. In others, it was not.
Puyallup’s population is about 41,000. Lakewood is the second-largest city in Pierce County with an estimated 60,000 residents, and Sumner has 10,000 residents.
Permits for residential building can take an average of six weeks to complete in Puyallup. The city issued 174 last year.
That same permit takes Lakewood an estimated 30 days to turnaround, 10 to 14 days in Sumner. Those cities handed out 32 and 58 residential permits last year, respectively.
Mechanical and plumbing permits allow work like replacing heating systems, propane tanks or sewage-disposal systems. Puyallup issued 467 last year, about a day after the request was made.
Puyallup’s time frame is comparable to Lakewood’s, where the 163 permits last year tended to be over-the-counter and issued the day they were requested, Lakewood spokeswoman Brynn Grimley said.
Sumner separates its mechanical permits for residences and commercial properties. Homes are over-the-counter, spokesperson Carmen Palmer said, but commercial mechanical permits can take 10 to 14 days. The city issued a total of 135 mechanical permits in 2019.
Right of Way
Franchise right-of-way permits allow projects on what would normally be public property — sidewalks, curbs, gutters — to be worked on by private owners or companies. They can be renewed annually.
Puyallup issued 280 franchise right-of-way permits last year, taking four weeks to complete. That’s longer than the 48-hour average for Sumner, where 129 permits were issued in 2019, and Lakewood’s five-day goal.
Lakewood does not currently offer franchise right-of-way permits, but its does offer one-time permits, Grimley said. The city issued 400 last year.
A new system
Puyallup’s Development Services and Permit Department told the council on Jan. 28 that some of the delay with preliminary site plan permits has to do with inconsistent procedures and staff misunderstanding roles.
A standardized process with clearly defined steps could cut that permit process from 88 days to 45 days, according to the department.
In light of continual complaints, the city budgeted $616,000 this year to purchase a new electronic permit system and $125,000 for a full-time person to oversee permits. The online portal system has a recurring, annual licensing fee of $38,000.
The current permit processing system has been used for 12 years, requiring patches and fixes, said Tom Utterback, head of the Development Services and Permit Department. The city expects adding a new permitting process and a position will streamline the process.
“Every amount of time the staff spent trying to use the system or fix it, that’s not time spent viewing plans and processing permits,” Utterback told the council in a study session on Sept. 12.
There are times customers have to bring in stacks of paperwork in a wheelbarrow, he said.
“We just have a very clumsy system,” Utterback said.
Puyallup wants a full electronic permit portal, which would be easier for staff and customers, storage and record retention, Utterback told the council.
Sumner’s permit process is in-person, while Lakewood uses an online portal.
Utterback estimates a year before staff is comfortable with the new process and issuing permits becomes more efficient.