It can sometimes seem like growth in York County is unstoppable, but one thing can at least slow things down – a lack of building inspectors.
A backlog in inspection requests has recently had some builders waiting for days to get necessary building reviews completed before projects can move forward.
“We normally try to complete an inspection within 24 hours,” said York County Planning Director Audra Miller, “and we were five days behind.”
The pile-up in building inspection requests caused delays in construction schedules and has overwhelmed the small inspection staff at the Planning and Development Services Department. Miller said inspections are back on schedule, but the building division worked overtime without leave for two weeks to get back on track.
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The planning department is asking the York County Council for the money to fill two new positions:
▪ A commercial and industrial building inspector to take some of the load off the existing inspection staff.
▪ An environmental compliance officer to primarily tackle water quality issues.
In some ways, the strain on building inspections is a sign of an economic upturn. During the recession, and the decline in new construction that came with it, York County requests for inspections declined by a third – from 20,726 in 2008, to a low of 13,558 in 2011.
During that time, the planning department reduced its number of inspectors from 10 to four and eliminated an environmental compliance position.
Now that construction has come back, inspection requests in 2014 exceeded pre-recession levels, at 20,810. Growth has left inspectors struggling to meet the demand, and building officials who usually work out of the office on Heckle Boulevard have been called upon to handle on-site inspections themselves.
“They’re normally in the office to talk to walk-ins or answer phone calls,” Miller said. “If someone has a question and they don’t get their phone call returned, some may just give up and go ahead with what they’re doing and hope they pass inspection.”
Gary Bass is one of those office workers who has had to step up on inspection calls. The county building official and his deputy are qualified to carry out inspections, such as the one he took part in at a home under construction in Lake Wylie last week, but he would more often be handling things back at the office.
“We were able to get overtime approved to cut back on that (backlog),” Bass said. “In York County, we’ve always prided ourselves on responding within 24 hours, as opposed to some places where you have to wait two weeks.”
On a good day, one building inspector might perform 20 inspections. How many requests for inspections do they get on a bad day?
“Twenty-one,” Bass says, although 25 to 30 per inspector might be more common. If all six building staff are making inspections, they can hit 120 a day, but at one point, developers might still be waiting a week for an inspection.
Delays can cause other hassles as well.
“If we heard from a developer who’s putting in footings, they will call when they know they’ll have good weather,” Miller said. “But we might say instead of tomorrow, we can get there in three or four days, and then it’s pouring down rain.
“If they failed an inspection, it might just require a small fix, but then when they want a re-inspection, we might say, ‘No, it will take four or five days,’ and they have to wait.”
Inspectors have to set priorities for the calls they receive.
If an inspection is needed before a builder can get the power turned on, Miller said, they don’t want to him in the dark. But if someone asked for a “courtesy inspection” on a property they just bought, that would be a low priority.
The same building might have to pass multiple inspections at different stages of the construction process. From the initial electrical work to final inspection, up to 10 separate inspections can be required. That same inspector, meanwhile, might be called on to cover a wide swath of the county.
“You might have to go from here to Hickory Grove,” Bass said. “But in some places in Fort Mill, you could have 20 in one neighborhood.”
An additional inspector, Bass said, “would help maintain the numbers and the quality of the inspections.”
It’s not that the planning department has seen a greater increase in demand for commercial inspections – Miller said those split about evenly with residential inspections – but a commercial/industrial inspector would also be qualified to perform residential inspections as well.
The department is also requesting a new environmental compliance officer for next year. That position doesn’t inspect homes, it would monitor discharges into waterways and retention ponds.
Since the position was eliminated in 2010, those duties have been handled by others in the environmental compliance division, Miller said, but filling the post is needed now for the department to renew a five-year Clean Water Act permit through the EPA that allows the county to implement water controls.
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062