Los Alamos County Principal Planner Ryan Foster, left, chats with Patrick Sullivan, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.comBradbury Science Museum Director Linda Deck, speaks to David Jolly and Los Alamos County Councilor. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Planning review process chart for Los Alamos County.
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
If there were two messages Los Alamos County Community Development Department (CDD) officials wanted to get out from a recent presentation to Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce members, they seemed to be, firstly, talk to the Department and secondly, that the process for planning and permitting is not as simple as people think.
“When we look at the schematic here it’s a little intense,” said Paul Andrus, Community Development Manager, referring to the diagram pictured below. He explained that the building division approval is only one facet of the building permitting process that CDD is responsible for but that other departments have authority over other aspects such as utilities, fire and engineering. He said the New Mexico Construction Industries Division is also involved.
Chart showing the Los Alamos County Community Development Department’s permit process for approval.
“So when you hear discussion about the County’s permitting process with a focus on the CDD – we’re responsible for it and we take a lot of the brunt of the feedback – but we’re not necessarily in control for pretty much the majority of the permit review,” Andrus said.
He said if a permit doesn’t require that other department get involved, it can be taken care of over the counter.
“When there are issues with the process, or when people feel it is taking too long, or there are owner’s responsibilities through it, there’s a lot more to the story than just our permit tech at the counter taking your permit in for our review. We can’t approve some of our inspections until CID been on site to do their inspections. That’s the story that I would like the community to hear – is that there are a lot of other issues that come into play,” Andrus said.
Andrus introduced Chief Building Inspector Michael Arellano and Principal Planner Ryan Foster. He said at the time of hiring each of them, he told them that their workloads would be manageable and that they would be able to see things out in front of them as they come up.
“Pretty much from Day One each of them have said I lied to them. For Michael, it’s always an interesting day in the building permitting world and with Ryan we have had some of the most significant projects the County has seen in decades come in,” Andrus said.
Arellano explained the County’s permitting rule, that “any owner or owner’s authorized agent who intends to construct, enlarge, alter, repair, move, demolish or change the occupancy of a building or structure, or to erect, install, enlarge, alter, repair, remove, convert or replace any electrical, gas, mechanical or plumbing system, the installation of which is regulated by this code, or to cause any such work to be performed, shall first make application to the building official and obtain the required permit.”
He said a lot of people think that if they remove an interior wall they don’t need a permit because it’s not structural work, but that there are a lot of things that come into consideration, such as sprinkler systems and exiting when taking out or adding a wall.
Arellano also pointed out that approval for a permit is not all done in-house at the County. He said CID is responsible for the electrical, plumbing and mechanical and that the County works very closely with the state to get things done.
Arellano reviewed the list of codes the County has adopted in Chapter 10 of the Los Alamos County Code. He said as part of the plan review process, everyone has to sign off on everything before he can issue a permit. He said CDD has gone from taking 30 days for a commercial permit to be reviewed to only five days, and from 15 days for a residential permit to three days. Arellano has update more than 40 processes since coming on board with the County. A permit can actually be paid for online and printed once approved. He stressed that the more information the customer can provide about their project the easier it is for them to be provided with the right answers. He also noted that a business license can be issued any time during the process but does not give the authority to open up and start a business.
Foster discussed the planning side of the Department saying it operates primarily under the County’s Comprehensive Plan and the Development Code. development code. The Comprehensive Plan was adopted by the County to guide overall growth, development and capital improvement planning in the County. Chapter 16 of the County Code deals with development and the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan through establishment of zoning districts and the appropriate regulation of land use within those districts.
Foster’s side of the house also deals with rezoning which requires at least two public hearings – one before the Planning & Zoning Commission, which makes a recommendation, and one before the County Council for final action. He is also responsible for site plans which are graphical depictions of proposed developments of property that provide information such as location of structures, setbacks, exterior facades, placement of parking and traffic circulation, exterior lighting and landscaping. A site plan application is required for all development of property or alterations/additions to existing structures, except for residential development of two units or less.
Minor Site Plan Amendments are also under Foster’s purview – where a site plan has been previously approved, minor amendments are proposed changes that will not change the use of a building of increase it beyond 20 percent of the gross floor area or exceed a maximum of 5,000 square feet of gross floor area. Planning also handles special use permit, as well as subdivision and summary plats.
Planning is not the one issuing permits in the County, but is certainly involved. Foster also suggested preliminary meetings with CDD staff in advance of projects to get the people involved in the same room to comment on a project before moving forward on it.
Arellano said he can and has walked through spaces beforehand.
“Only caviat is that I can’t design for you because it’s not my job. There’s kind of a fine line there between designing a project and offering some recommendations,” he said.
Andrus said since he’s been in town the County Councils he has worked with have wanted CDD to provide support as needed.
“The conflict there was that (Arellano) is the building official. He is the objective party to review and enforce the laws for health and safety. So we have to tread lightly when we provide technical assistance. Philosophically, I believe we need to be there to help because these are highly technical and intimidating issues. The fine line, though, doing a walkthrough, is meeting someone informally where they ask can they do something and we respond ‘yes you can do that, but there are all these things you will have to do’, and the person walks away thinking, ‘yes I can do that’. But I feel that’s a very important service that we can provide,” Andrus said.
Arellano recommend coming to the Department to ask questions. He said we can find people to answer your questions and probably come up with answers to questions you’re not even asking.
Asked about situations raised recently on social media involving older buildings where people are claiming they are getting one answer at the beginning of the process and at the end of the project are claiming they are finding out something different. Andrus said the broad response is that in those particular incidences no application had been submitted to the department.
Arellano said if the CDD doesn’t know what someone is doing on their property they don’t know.
“If people come to us and say we’re just doing this, that’s what we go on. We need to know what you’re doing – we need the full picture,” he said.
Andrus said part of the challenge for the small business in the commercial realm is that the code requires certain things to be handled by a licensed architect or engineer.
“Those are daunting if you are an entrepreneurial spirit working on your own or you’re a new business and don’t know a lot of these things. There’s a lot of preconceptions about what those services cost. There are costs associated with it and it’s easy for someone like me to say spend the money but in fact it’s not really us telling them to spend the money. Michael (Arellano) can take those plans when they’ve been stamped. In certain cases that’s all he’s looking for because it’s required under the state code,” Andrus said. “That’s why when people come into our department early on, when they are organizing the matter and they can understand what’s ahead of them, that’s when it works. Then when they’re ready to go forward, cost of permit is negligible in context of entire project.”
Los Alamos County Community Development Department officials, from left, Principal Planner Ryan Foster, Manager Paul Andrus and Chief Building Official Michael Arellano at a recent presentation on permitting and planning. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com