May 22, 2022

dialogoenlaoscuridad

Home Finishes First

DeKalb vows improvement after contractors pan county permitting office

4 min read

DeKalb County’s building permit office has been closed to the public since March 2020. Contractors say that’s a large reason why they rate DeKalb as the worst permitting office in the metro area.

The shortage of homes for sale prompted many Georgians to stay put and remodel instead.

To do major renovations — like add a bedroom or expand your kitchen — you first need a building permit.

And that’s where homeowners and contractors told the FOX 5 I-Team one metro county has been sticking them with a frustrating wait.

“DeKalb wasn’t great before but now, since the pandemic, it’s just absolutely become intolerable,” complained Kathryn Stempler, executive director for the Atlanta chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

Stempler surveyed her members to see which county is the most helpful in processing remodeling permits and which one generates the most headaches.

Gwinnett and Cobb scored well. DeKalb won the Headache Award hands down.

Some of the comments:

“They do not answer any emails, have no way to track anything, inspectors are always late and will not contact anyone.”

“DeKalb County is a train wreck.”

“We survived COVID but we may not survive DeKalb Co!!!! This is serious for my company.”

Cathy and Michael Kilgore waited four months for a permit to expand their Decatur-area home.

Why did DeKalb score so poorly? Contractors say it’s because the Building Permit office closed to the public after the pandemic started in March 2020. And it still hasn’t reopened.

All permitting business is handled remotely. That might be okay, as long as the work was actually getting done.

“In DeKalb it’s quite literally you just cannot even speak to anybody,” said Stempler.

Last year Cathy and Michael Kilgore wanted to add on to their 1000 square foot bungalow near Decatur.

The retired educator and financial consultant hired a contractor to build a new bedroom, expand the laundry room, bathroom, closet and add a butler’s pantry.

The contractor filed for a zoning variance January 6, 2021. The zoning board granted the request March 10, 2021.

It took until July 28, 2021, for the Kilgores to actually get their permit to start work.

And they say their contractor could never get DeKalb County inspectors to tell them why it was taking so long.

“There’s no excuse for not returning calls,” said Michael. “Sending an email. Responding to our builder.”

DeKalb County was the only one that failed to match its pre-pandemic remodeling permit numbers last year. It's also the only one of the four counties not to reopen its office to the public.

DeKalb County was the only one that failed to match its pre-pandemic remodeling permit numbers last year. It’s also the only one of the four counties not to reopen its office to the public.

The FOX 5 I-Team checked on remodeling numbers for Cobb, Clayton and Gwinnett County.

None closed its doors to the public for any significant time during the pandemic.

All three saw their 2021 remodeling permit numbers surpass the 2019 numbers, the year before  the pandemic.

But not DeKalb County. Inspectors there reviewed 1301 remodeling permits last year. In 2019, they reviewed 1958.

DeKalb County chose to keep its offices closed to the public all this time to “balance public safety as well as the employees’ safety based on this unknown virus,” explained Andrew, Baker, director of Planning and Sustainability.

“I think based on our numbers, we’ve actually done an excellent job during COVID of what the new process for doing permitting will be post-COVID,” he argued.

Baker preferred to talk about numbers showing DeKalb approved more construction permits in all categories last year compared to Cobb, Clayton or Gwinnett.

But even then, DeKalb’s overall permit numbers still haven’t bounced back to 2019 levels.

That pre-pandemic year saw DeKalb issue 21,504 permits. Last year, the number was 14,833.

Planning and Sustainability Director Andrew Baker sits in DeKalb's new one-stop permitting office. It's scheduled to open to the p public July 1, hopefully helping streamline the permitting process.

Planning and Sustainability Director Andrew Baker sits in DeKalb’s new one-stop permitting office. It’s scheduled to open to the p public July 1, hopefully helping streamline the permitting process. (FOX 5)

Baker admitted forcing all contractors to use the county’s new online system revealed flaws in their software. He says DeKalb has since spent more than $1 million in upgrades.

And come July 1, Baker promised their new one-stop permitting office will be open to the public. DeKalb spent at least $10 million renovating the old DFACS location on Sams Street.

For the first time in 28 months, if a contractor has a question about a permit, they’ll be able to meet face-to-face with someone who will hopefully be able to give them an answer.

“We’ve learned from COVID, and we think we’re going to come out of the box actually ahead of all the other counties in terms of all the services we provided including the remodeling industry,” said Baker.

Can DeKalb avoid a repeat Headache of the Year award?

The 2022 numbers will ultimately provide the answer.

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