Audit: Portland construction permitting process too slow, complicated

Civic Affairs

Commissioner Dan Ryan promises he will lead the Bureau of Development Service to reform the much-maligned system

FILE: In this March 9, 2020, file photo, construction is underway at 140 SW Columbia St. in downtown Portland. It will be developed into a 20-story multi-use building that will feature 248 apartments, ground-level retail space and above-grade parking garages (KOIN).

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Portland’s notoriously complicated and slow construction permitting process is back in the news.

The City Auditor’s Office released an audit Wednesday, March 23, criticizing the process, which involves no few than seven city agencies. Among other things, the audit said many permits were not being approved by the deadlines set by the city of Portland — and that no one knows how long it actually takes for them to finally be approved.

According to the audit, the more complicated the application, the more opportunities exist for delays. And an increasing percentage of applications are complicated, in part because of growing city regulations governing construction projects.

“Solving these problems requires sustained, focused City Council leadership,” the audit said.

The release of the audit followed a promise to reform the process made last Friday by Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, which accepts initial permit applications.

“It is within the community’s best interest to provide timely and efficient permitting services — yet for years, many would say permitting in Portland has been slow, unpredictable, inconsistent, and at times, unpleasant,” Ryan wrote in a newsletter highlighting his first three months in office that was released on March 19.

In the newsletter, Ryan said he has assembled a Permit Streamlining & Accountability Task Force with representatives from all seven agencies involved in the process. In addition to the development services, they include Portland Fire & Rescue and the bureaus of Environmental Services, Housing, Parks & Recreation, Transportation, and Water.

The task force also includes the existing Development Review Advisory Committee and other stakeholders.

“The time is now to collectively tackle chronic permitting challenges,” Ryan wrote.

The audit cited the number of bureaus involved in the process as a major reason why it is so complicated and slow. It noted that Portland’s unique form of government — where each council member oversees bureaus assigned by the mayor — contributes to the problems. No single council member is in charge of all the permit-related bureaus, and their offices do not necessarily work together to identify and solve problems.

“Portland’s fragmented form of government exacerbates the situation. Seven bureaus and City Council are responsible for plan reviews, but no one entity manages systemwide performance,” the audit said.

The audit also said the city is not following the process for resolving complaints about the permitting process adopted in 2004.

“Instead of using the established policy, the city uses informal practices where it is up to the customer to navigate their complaint through the city bureaucracy,” the audit said.

Problems with the permitting system have been documented and publicized for years, including by several previous audits. One major shortcoming was largely overcome in early 2020 when the application process transitioned from paper forms to electronic filings. The new audit did not delve into how well the new system was working, however.

The audit made five recommendations for solving the problems.

Because no single bureau is in charge, the development bureau should work with the other permitting bureaus to:

  • Develop and adopt a citywide performance management system capable of achieving consistent fulfIllment of the city’s comprehensive performance goals.
  • Follow city policy for resolving and reporting customer complaints about plan review delays or propose an alternative that provides the same level of accountability to the customer, Development Review Advisory Committee, and the council.

In addition, the commissioner-in-charge of the development services bureau should champion the need for change and ensure the council:

  • Dedicates resources and holds permitting bureaus collectively accountable to the full and timely implementation of city improvement initiatives related to governance, business process improvement, and bureau agreements.
  • Follow city policies and implement the previous recommendations — or adopt alternatives — to address citywide regulatory improvements that also involve other bureaus, such as the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Office of Management and Finance.

“There is a clear need for coordination and leadership accountability for the entire plan review process. This includes ongoing assessment of performance on city goals for development services and one-off responsibilities for resolution of customer issues caused by conflicting code requirements,” the audit said.

The Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group’s papers are a KOIN 6 News media partner

The audit can be found here.

A previous Portland Tribune story on the issue can be found here.

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