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In the queue: Development process slows as building projects grow in Fort Worth

🕐 6 min read

Building development in Fort Worth doesn’t look to slow down anytime soon, as hotel, shopping center, apartment projects and the like are popping up seemingly one after another.

What is slowing down, though, is the time it takes for a development to move through the City of Fort Worth, get a building permit and start construction. While the permitting process isn’t the same for everyone, many developments often go through initial meetings with city staff, known as pre-development conferences, and have to replat property before getting approval for a building permit. As development numbers climb, some projects are getting caught in the city’s backlog, causing the process to take longer.

“The queue here is as active as any city outside of, let’s say New York or Los Angeles or Atlanta and maybe Chicago, in the country,” said David Berzina, executive vice president of economic development at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. “Is it perfect? Heck no, it’s not perfect. But it’s had a lot of growth that has clouded the process perhaps.”

According to city data, 9,974 building permits were issued in fiscal year 2010. In fiscal year 2015, that number jumped to 11,272, with the city projecting to issue 12,026 permits by the end of fiscal year 2016. Plats and right-of-way applications are rising, too, jumping from 297 in fiscal year 2010 to 507 in fiscal year 2015, with 582 applications projected for fiscal year 2016.

Much of Fort Worth’s development growth is a result of population growth, said Will Northern, owner and broker of real estate firm Northern Realty Group and member of the city’s Zoning Commission. Fort Worth has about 800,000 people is expected to grow by an average of about 20,000 people per year.

“All these people moving here and all these companies moving here – we have to develop more square footage to accommodate everybody,” Northern said.

More people mean more projects for the queue, which can also translate to longer wait times. Assistant Planning Director Dana Burghdoff said the step in the development process that’s taking longer than others isn’t necessarily the issuance of a building permit itself, but everything that happens before that – the pre-development conferences, replatting and right-of-way adjustments.

Burghdoff said the growing numbers in platting applications are “making us a bit nervous.”

“The time frames are different for each process, but by nature, the platting process takes longer because you’re having to provide infrastructure to that site and, in some cases, for the first time,” she said. “You’re having to figure out where’s the water and sewer going to come in, is there floodplain, where’s the stormwater, we have to construct the streets, construct the water and sewer lines – it’s a much more intensive process to make the land ready.”

The time it takes for a property to be replatted depends on the size of the development, but it can take at least a month, Burghdoff said. Other city departments, such as Parks and Recreation, have replat projects of their own as well, which adds to the queue.

“We’ve struggled in the last few months because of the volumes that we’ve seen on platting,” she said.

One developer, Dirik Oudt, said he had to wait more than a year before being approved for a building permit, citing platting as part of the delay. Oudt is the president of Lang Partners, the Dallas-based development company working on the 327-unit Oleander apartment project in the Near Southside.

Oudt said Fort Worth requires an approved final plat before starting construction. Dallas, on the other hand, allows construction to move forward with an approved preliminary plat.

Some of his past projects in Dallas – like the 260-unit Zang Triangle apartments in North Oak Cliff and 342-unit Maple District Lofts in the hospital district – took about three months or less to go through the city, he said. The Oleander apartment project took more than a year.

“It’s always a chicken-egg problem in allowing us to proceed to development with an approved preliminary plat,” Oudt said. “It can cut four to six months off the process for us. That’s the biggest challenge.”

The time to get a building permit application approved has slowed slightly as well. Assuming that platting is finished, plans are approved and construction codes are met, the city would ideally like to issue a permit within seven business days, said Allison Gray, assistant development director at the City of Fort Worth. She said it currently takes the city about 13 business days on average to review a permit application and send its first comments back to the developer. That’s better than the national average of about 20 days, she said, but still not what the city is aiming for.

Another factor affecting the length of the development process is the city’s need for more development staff, Gray said. One reason for short staffing is that many of the city’s inspectors who have mechanical, plumbing or other trade licenses are finding that they can make more money doing their trade rather than doing inspections. With the construction industry booming, many inspectors are leaving the city to pursue their trade, she said.

The development department currently has about 84 full-time employees, Gray said, and Burghdoff said the department has requested for additional staff to be put on the city’s budget for next year.

In the meantime, Burghdoff said the city has been continually looking for ways to improve. Back in 2006, the city hired California consulting firm Zucker Systems to analyze the city’s development process. Zucker came up with 165 recommendations for improving staffing, technology and workflow. Berzina said the city has improved since implementing the recommendations, but it would be a good idea to revisit the process and factor in the city’s recent growth rate.

Burghdoff said city staff has been meeting monthly to discuss ways to improve. Gray said some solutions include making building permits available online, automatically issuing permits for smaller improvement projects like foundation repairs that don’t require as much review and asking third party companies to help with things like zoning review.

“That’s the type of thing we’re looking for, is ways to both get construction people and developers and contractors on their way with what they need to do and try and mitigate our workload,” Gray said.

Either way, the amount of time it takes for a project to go through the city is subjective – some developers may find it slower, while others may find it faster depending on what their expectations are or what their experience has been in other cities, Berzina said.

That’s been the case for Tom Galbreath, president of Fort Worth civil engineering firm Dunaway Associates, which works regularly with the City of Fort Worth. Dunaway is currently working with the city on projects like the Multipurpose Arena and Tavolo Park on the former Pate Ranch property off Chisholm Trail Parkway.

Galbreath said he’s experienced both quick turnaround times and slow ones, but what would help is adding more staff to keep up with growing development.

“We are blessed to live in a city where our major problems consist of trying to figure out how to manage all of our opportunities,” he said.

It wouldn’t hurt to find ways to get better, though, Berzina said.

“It is a challenge for world-class city planners to keep up with that rate of growth,” he said. “From time to time, there are certainly challenges in the queue in every city, unless the city isn’t growing or isn’t growing very rapidly.”

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