Boom county: Faster permits for ‘houses waiting to get built’

EVERETT — Snohomish County has been striving to help builders put more houses on the market, as a short supply continues to make life hectic for homebuyers.

County planners have been working to shave the time it takes to approve new subdivisions. They’re allowing developers to submit more plans online, rather than meeting in person. They’ve also added an in-house surveyor to their staff.

Plan reviews that took two or three months to complete early last year are now getting done within 30 days. It’s part of the process for creating legal building lots, also known as plats or subdivisions.

“We’ve been struggling for quite a few years with trying to get the final plat process more efficient,” planning director Barb Mock said. “Anything we can do to streamline the final plat process has a ton of positive results. Anything we can do at that point can have the effect of making homes more affordable.”

Those changes are part of a countywide effort Executive Dave Somers has been exploring since taking office in 2016 to make government more efficient.

A recent change in state law also helped trim a few days for developers, by simplifying the taxation process for newly created lots. The County Council is set to take a vote Wednesday on erasing another step, possibly trimming a couple of weeks from turnaround times.

The changes come during a boom for builders. Homes are selling lightning quick, often far above the asking price. Formerly rural land outside Bothell, Mill Creek and Lake Stevens has rapidly turned suburban.

In June, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service tracked 1,957 pending house and condo sales in Snohomish County. That’s only about a 5 percent bump compared to a year earlier. The average sales price, however, has jumped by nearly $50,000 since 2016 — reaching $420,000, up from $372,150 a year ago.

Another sign of increasing demand: The number of houses and condos on the market dipped by nearly 10 percent in the past year.

George Newman, a senior project manager with Barghausen Consulting Engineers, said the county’s online services have saved his staff many trips to Everett from their offices in Kent.

“Definitely there’s worsening traffic,” said Newman, who worked in the 1990s as a land-use manager for Snohomish County. “Being able to do things electronically — it’s definitely using technology to save time.”

The wider building community is thrilled with the progress. Idle time waiting for county approvals means more loan payments on the property. It also increases the risk of theft or squatters at construction sites.

“The sooner we’re able to get in and get to work, the sooner it’s going to look like a livable community,” said Mike Pattison, a lobbyist for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

Other changes are in the works.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers eliminated a rule that forced developers to pay property taxes on new subdivisions a year ahead of time. State lawmakers passed House Bill 1283 unanimously.

“Now, we won’t see the plat before it’s recorded. We’ll see the plat after it’s recorded,” county Assessor Linda Hjelle said. “It probably saves the developer about three days.”

Taxes still will get paid, just later in the process. Hjelle said the change also frees up her staff to address backlogs in other areas.

Another proposal to eliminate the County Council’s role in approving subdivisions is drawing some opposition.

Regulars at council meetings have grown accustomed to hearing lawmakers repeat a familiar refrain before voting to approve a subdivision: “I have received a donation from a party of record, but that won’t affect my decision.”

A new state law lets the county remove the council from making plat approvals. Instead, the planning department would oversee them, a system that could speed things up by a couple of weeks. Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 5674 44-0 in the Senate and 55-43 in the House.

“It just takes out pure process when houses are waiting to get built,” said Mock, the county’s planning director. “At any point, if there’s a problem in the field, we’ll send an inspector to look. Nothing is changing at the front end.”

The proposal doesn’t sit well with Mickie Gundersen, who has been involved in numerous challenges to developments in south Snohomish County, particularly over water-quality issues. She’d like to see the council keep its role looking over the planning department’s shoulders.

“The more checks and balances we have on Planning and Development Services and the development community, the better,” Gundersen said. “It is my experience that they are not following code. Period.”

The Master Builders’ Pattison disagrees. He said the appropriate time to bring up any objections is earlier in the process, when the hearing examiner grants an initial approval. That sometimes includes specific conditions the developer must meet.

“It’s important to note that this legislation changes nothing when it comes to public notice or the appeals processes,” Pattison said. “Everybody’s right to comment and to appeal is preserved.”

The County Council hearing on making the proposed change is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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