North Hempstead continues efforts to cut buildings backlog

North Hempstead continues efforts to cut buildings backlog
North Hempstead Town Supervisor speaks at a civic group meeting in New Hyde Park on Wednesday. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

The Town of North Hempstead is working to cut wait times for approvals from its building department amid an influx of permit applications, officials said Wednesday.

Residents and business owners currently wait anywhere from three to 12 weeks for building permits, depending on the nature and complexity of the project, Building Commissioner John Niewender said.

The department, which processes about 5,000 permits a year, recently got two more plan examiners to help deal with a high volume of applications, Niewender said.

That gives the town a total of eight plan examiners, up from six, town spokeswoman Carole Trottere said. The impact of the new examiners, one a new hire and the other a reassigned building inspector, has not been felt because they are still in training, Niewender said.

The town also now asks for more information on initial applications and is testing a program allowing commercial projects to be built in phases so they don’t have to wait so long before getting started, Niewender said.

“We said we’re going to be your advocates, not your adversaries. That hasn’t changed,” Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth told a crowd of about 75 at the Lakeville Estates Civic Association meeting Wednesday night in New Hyde Park.

Backlogs in the building department have been a public issue in North Hempstead since five building officials were arrested on bribery and coercion charges in 2007.

Long waits still cause most of the department’s complaints, Niewender said.

Basic interior alterations to homes currently take an average of three weeks to approve, Niewender said. Applications for properties with code violations take the longest, he said — 10 to 12 weeks.

“It’s bad, and we know it is,” he said.

Bosworth, a Democrat, promised to build on recent reforms when she was elected town supervisor in 2013. Since then she has created an applicant advocate’s office, which helps residents navigate the building department.

In a 2015 interview, Councilman Peter Zuckerman said 85 percent of cases were then addressed within two weeks, up from 75 percent in 2013.

Wait times have lengthened again, though, as the department’s staff tries to address an “extremely high” volume of applications, Niewender said.

“Volume is a good thing — people are making alterations and making changes and improving their properties,” he said. “However, I can’t get the stuff out quick enough.”

The department can expedite certain jobs, such as businesses that are making construction investments or residents who must renovate their homes for health reasons, Niewender said. But even those queues have been backed up lately, he said.

Revenue from several recent increases in building permit fees — the first hikes in 12 years — will feed the building department’s budget, allowing it to hire more staff, Bosworth said.

Jeff Pliskin, who manages commercial properties in New Hyde Park, said the combination of long wait times and outdated land use laws make it hard to bring in new businesses.

“You can hire your architect, your engineer, and they can tell you, ‘This is what you’re allowed to do,’ but it’s not matching up with the real world right now, because it’s changing, retail is changing,” Pliskin, the CEO and president of Garden City-based Pliskin Realty & Development, told town officials Wednesday.

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