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Construction permit boom hits Snohomish County

More workers are needed to process permits for unfinished projects idled by the 2008 crash, officials say.

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By Noah Haglund
Herald Writer
@NWHaglund
Published:
EVERETT -- Back in 2007, Stonewater Creek was well on its way to becoming a new neighborhood of 76 homes.
Then came the financial downturn. Like so many other housing developments, Stonewater Creek got stuck in limbo -- ghost streets with utilities and empty roads, but no houses.
No longer. Last year a Bellevue developer took over the project. This past weekend, model homes were ready for a grand opening.
"It sat dormant for several years," said George Newman, a land-use consultant and project manager from Barghausen Consulting Engineers of Kent. "It's your typical project that was sitting out there covered in Scotch broom, and a dumping ground for garbage."
The Silver Lake-area neighborhood isn't the only Snohomish County housing development stirring back to life. And that's keeping the county's permitting employees plenty busy. The change has been significant enough that county managers want to add staff to keep up with the work.
The revival of single-family homebuilding is just one reason for the spike in permit activity. Others include a dramatic rise in permits for new apartments, aerospace facilities and cellphone communication infrastructure.
The county now is processing permits for more than a half-dozen unfinished housing developments, with a total of 500 homes. They got started during the 2005-2007 housing boom, but never finished the approval process.
"We're not talking about new applications," county land-use manager Tom Rowe said. "We're talking about projects that were distressed, that were on the books prior to the economic downturn."
Part of what's driving the interest in stalled housing developments is that many are nearing the end of their permitting shelf life. Developers are trying to finish up before an eight-year deadline passes. Miss the deadline, and they'll have to start from scratch.
The county is seeing more than just old projects, though. Developers have identified more than five new plats --the beginning stage in a housing development-- that they expect to submit to county planners over the next several months.
That, Rowe said, "is more than we've had over the past three years, total."
The county also has seen an upswing in actual homebuilding -- activity that occurs after the developer has a final plat in hand. Permit applications for single-family homes nearly doubled to an average of 27.2 per week during the first quarter of 2012 compared to 13.9 per week during the first quarter of 2011. Permits for commercial structures increased more than threefold during that time.
New apartments also are driving up the permitting workload. At the moment, the county is processing three proposed developments with more than 300 units combined.
Those projects, which planners are working on now, come on top of the more than 380 permits for apartment units that the county has issued this year. Those first-quarter numbers are more than double the original forecast for all of 2012.
Four additional apartment projects are moving forward in high-density urban-center and multi-residential zones near Lynnwood's 164th Street. They include 1,500 units, ranging from about 230 to 500 units each.
Other areas besides housing are driving the uptick in permit activity.
Aerospace companies are seeking permits for tenant improvements and new buildings at the county's Paine Field. Communication companies, meanwhile, need county permits to retrofit cellphone towers for their 4G networks.
To keep up with demand, the county planning department is looking to add permitting staff. They now have the equivalent of 48 full-time employees, or about a third of the staff they had in 2008, when the permitting revenues that support their budget began to tumble.
Now, permit revenues are starting to creep back up. The county took in $3.1 million through April -- about 2.7 percent more than during the same period of 2011. With extra staff, Rowe and other planning department managers believe they'll be able to increase permitting revenue by even more.
The County Council is in the process of considering whether to authorize the hiring of eight more people to handle permits at a cost of about $800,000 per year. The council could act in late May or early June.
County leaders, in the past, have waited for revenue to come in before adding permit personnel. This time, they want to react early to avoid creating a backlog of work and long lines of unhappy customers.
"We're trying to stay out in front of issues," planning director Clay White said.
The county planning chief was upbeat about business picking up.
"We're cautious, but we're optimistic," White said.
Local builders had a similar reaction.
"We've known for a long time that working through the distressed property inventory would be key to the housing turnaround, so it's very encouraging to see that happening," said Mike Pattison, a lobbyist for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.
Pattison used words such as "mushrooming" and "exploding" to describe the current market for single-family houses in south Snohomish County. That's particularly true in areas between Bothell and Mill Creek. Go north of Everett, however, and it's a different story.
"We're still seeing a geographical divide," Pattison said. "South county is doing very well. North county is still playing catch-up."
Newman, the consultant at Stonewater Creek, used to work as Snohomish County's land-use manager in the 1990s, the same job that Rowe does now.
He called the revival of long-dormant projects an all-around win: for developers, for the county, and for workers who finally have jobs.
The developers get financially viable projects they can move quickly. The county gets permit revenue. And, there's all those framers, roofers, plumbers and others who are getting paychecks.
"You see somebody who's been hired and put back to work to be able to contribute and perform at their trade again," he said. "It's one of the intangibles, but it's one of the nicest things to see."

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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