Assembly extends law letting builders bypass city review

nherz@adn.comAugust 20, 2013 

— The Anchorage Assembly unanimously approved a measure Tuesday night that extends a temporary law allowing builders to hire their own private experts to review structural plans for one- and two-family homes, bypassing a city approval process.

It also prohibits city officials from forcing those builders to turn over their design calculations, which the builders said were being used as ammunition to show flaws in the private reviews.

"This is their weapon to defeat the ordinance," said Ray Hickel, a local builder, in testimony before the Assembly.

City building officials said they were receptive to the changes approved Tuesday, but they also vigorously refuted Hickel's charges.

"Once that ordinance went into place, we did everything possible to implement it in accordance with the law," said Jerry Weaver, the city's director of planning and community development.

The third-party reviews were originally proposed last September by Assemblyman Adam Trombley, who said he had been hearing complaints from builders that the city's reviews were taking too long, and soaking up precious time in a short building season.

Weaver attributed some of the delays to the fact that he had seen his staffing levels cut in half since 2009, while fielding more business.

Still, he said that a recent analysis showed that nearly 9 out of every 10 permit applications had been reviewed within 10 days of submission -- which he said was his department's target under the municipal code.

Trombley said he brought the issue back to the table because the city had been demanding the calculations from builders using the third-party process, then using the numbers to essentially conduct a backdoor review and point out problems.

"They're drawing out the process and trying to make it not work," he said.

Trombley said he was trying to make home construction in Anchorage cheaper, and smooth the process for the industry. He acknowledged that builders had contributed thousands of dollars to his re-election campaign -- Hickel is his deputy treasurer -- but he said that the money came in support of his politics and doesn't dictate his positions.

"People donate to people who are ideologically aligned with them. I'm absolutely friendly towards industry. I'm interested in making housing more affordable in this city," he said. "I'm not bought and paid for -- industry never came to me and said: 'Adam, do x, y, z.' I see a problem, and I go out there and take care of it."

Trombley's changes removed a so-called "sunset provision" in the law approved last September, which would have phased out the private review option in 2015. The law is now in place indefinitely.

The measure had the ardent support of a half-dozen builders, contractors, and engineers who appeared before the Assembly to testify. But it also drew some skepticism from others in the industry, like the city's Geotechnical Advisory Commission and Building Board, which, respectively, analyze the risk of natural hazards like earthquakes, and vet disputes between builders and city officials over code interpretation.

Both groups had recommended that the city continue to require the submission of the design calculations, and also that the Assembly re-examine the third-party review program after two years.

Neither of those recommendations was accepted by the Assembly.

In an interview, John Thornley, an engineer who chairs the geotechnical commission, said he was concerned that private reviewers might not hold builders to the same standards as those who work for the city.

The city's review, he said, is "independent review, and it's review being done by somebody who reviews plans over and over again, day in, day out, and has a very good handle on the code."

Trombley also proposed another new law Tuesday evening, which would allow the third-party review for all types of residential and commercial construction -- not just small homes.

That idea was not discussed -- it will be taken up at a subsequent meeting - but some Assembly members seemed more skeptical, since larger commercial buildings, as Assemblyman Dick Traini put it, are a "different sized elephant."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 

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