When Panera Bread came to Palm Coast in April 2012, it came with an announcement: Another bakery would open in the city within two years of the first.
That plan has since been abandoned. Eryn Catter, director of public relations and sales for Panera Bread, said in an email that the company has no additional location planned for the Palm Coast area.
Building the first Panera Bread bakery in Palm Coast was a lengthy and complicated process, said Josh Jeppesen, a project manager for Schmid Construction, the company that headed the restaurant’s vertical construction.
The first Panera project took three years to complete, Jeppesen said. Two and a half of those years were spent getting the restaurant out of planning and development. This is the longest it has ever taken Jeppesen to finish a Panera restaurant, he said. And he has built 10 of the restaurants in the last year and a half throughout central Florida,
Many say Palm Coast is a difficult place to build because of inefficient inspection and permitting processes that stretch the length of builds and escalate building fees. Some contractors say it’s so bad that they won’t work within the city ever again.
The origin of this negative perception, said Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, is difficult to trace or correct. He seldom hears concrete examples of how the city is being difficult, but he frequently hears complaints, he said.
“We hear about this all the time,” Netts said. “The problem is you’re dealing with innuendo and third-party concerns. Somebody needs to come to me and tell me where the city’s falling short, but nobody’s done that.”
Just the facts
If you ask Charlie Faulkner whether Palm Coast has a negative reputation as a place to build, he gives a quick answer: “I can think of four contractors off the top of my head who’ve told me in the last two years they won’t do business in the city of Palm Coast ever again because their experiences in interfacing with (the city) have been that frustrating.”
Faulkner, who currently does freelance consulting with Faulkner & Associates, is the former senior vice president of Palm Coast Holdings, the company that developed Town Center in Palm Coast.
He has watched the area’s municipalities since the early 1990s and says Flagler County and, since it was incorporated in 2000, Palm Coast, become more efficient managers of their building departments. Things are improving from the state they were in a decade ago, he said.
But there are still problems. The biggest: communication between inspectors, city officials and contractors.
Another: site work. In 2010, Palm Coast laid off staff and reorganized its departments because of budget cuts, when the city was under pressure to keep taxes low. Part of that process included eliminatiing 11 inspectors, one plans examiner, two zoning technicians and three development technicians. This reduced the number of inspectors onsite and started an inspection system in which project managers can call in requests for inspections and, within 24 hours, will have an inspector onsite.
This brought a bigger impact to site inspections than to the actual construction of houses.
“When it comes to site work,” said Palm Coast City Councilman Jason DeLorenzo, “you might put in a section of pipe and it has to be inspected and covered, and then the next section has to be inspected and covered, and so on.
“Calling in and asking for an inspection doesn’t really work too well with that process, because (site work) is something where you’re moving forward constantly,” said DeLorenzo, who is also the government affairs director for the Flagler Home Builders Association.
Waiting for inspections can slow the process down because the process of something like laying pipes is a fluid process. Having a single inspector assigned to each project who checked in daily could rectify this problem, DeLorenzo said.
Faulkner said he has seen the site-work stage of projects bring a page and a half of entries for inspections — each of which comes with a $40 fee. Palm Coast is an expensive place to do business, he said, because of inspections and because of impact fees. Flagler County passed a moratorium on its impact fees last year, but Palm Coast’s are still in place.
Faulkner referenced a client who purchased land and was ready to move forward with a commercial construction project until he realized how high the impact fees were. That client has built throughout the state without such fees, and simply decided not to build, Faulkner said. That was three years ago. The site is still empty.
These things might not be directly hurting Palm Coast’s economic development, but they aren’t helping it, either, Faulkner said.
That’s why DeLorenzo, along with the HBA, is working with the Palm Coast Business Assistance Center to explore ways to improve the construction process in Palm Coast. The two groups have so far had one meeting and anticipate more, during which a plan will be formed.
Aside from site work, other problems DeLorenzo identified included confusion surrounding the rules for paint colors, the process of working with the utility department in plan development, and issues with revisions on the field.
If a customer were to walk through a house in the process of being completed and ask that a small change be made — such as the addition of an outlet — the plan must be updated and a new inspection must be administered and passed, including the $40 fee tied to it.
This also can slow the construction process, DeLorenzo said.
“Ultimately, we’re dealing with customers,” he said. “We’re trying to do what they want and give them a service.”
As for the contractors who won’t work in Palm Coast anymore, one of them, Peter Lyden, is still doing his business elsewhere in Flagler County.
After spending some frustrating time working within the city with Del Electric Inc., Lyden one day got the call that disenchanted him from working with the city for good. A client called and said he’d been informed of a code violation for an air conditioning unit Lyden had done electrical work on.
The city said he’d done the work without a permit, even though Lyden had failed an inspection and subsequently passed it, he said. Permits allow for inspections, he said, adding that he thought the issue came from a lapse in communication or organization.
Lyden had to appear before the Florida Licensing Board and pay $160 to rectify the situation, which he said didn’t need repairing in the first place. At that time, he decided to keep his business out of Palm Coast.
“You get fed up after a while,” Lyden said, adding that the biggest issue he saw was in communication between the city and contractors. “They’re treating us like we’re enemies, and all we’re trying to do is do a job. You feel like a third-class citizen in their offices.”
Open for discussion
To Nestor Abreu, director of community development for Palm Coast, criticisms of the city’s building department are unfounded.
“The whole permitting process is (in place) to ensure compliance with code, and for the general public’s safety,” Abreu said. “It involves many hands. Construction even of small projects is, by its nature, complicated.”
The city’s building department is meeting its benchmark goals for permitting and inspections, Abreu said. According to the department’s December performance report, the city has provided plan reviews within 15 days for commercial projects and processed quick review permits within 24 hours — with 100% consistency.
“It’s very easy for contractors to blame the city when it’s actually their problem,” Netts said. “Our building code is a state building code. We don’t have anything in our code that isn’t anywhere else. The fact that we make people adhere to it, well, if that’s not business-friendly, then so be it.”
Still, the complaints exist, Netts said. His solution: Anyone with a problem should come to him or to City Council with their concerns. Netts said he intends to investigate any such complaints.
And among most involved in the construction industry, a common theme emerges: the need for strong communication between all involved parties.
“When it comes to economic development, the companies that are considering coming to your community are here well before you know it,” DeLorenzo said. “They’re snooping around. They’re listening, reading the paper, asking questions. Having a good reputation is very important.”
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