Village Council— A local building department?
- Published: June 4, 2021
Should the Village of Yellow Springs have its own local building department to review permits and inspect local projects?
For Village Manager Josué Salmerón, the answer is yes. Citing problems with the Greene County Building Department, Salmerón proposed the new local department at Council’s May 17 regular meeting.
“This is an economic development imperative,” Salmerón said.
“We are experiencing long delays, poor engagement and feedback from the county staff which restricts and discourages economic development,” he added.
The item was discussion only. Salmerón will return with a more detailed proposal at a future meeting.
Salmerón later said he has heard from four or five local builders about their difficulties dealing with the county department, and had a negative experience himself when the Village applied to the county to build a pole barn for equipment storage at the Sutton farm last year.
On that project, plan reviews were “taking too long,” inspections were not being scheduled and the county requested changes to the building plans that were unnecessary, Salmerón said.
“Some of it was just ridiculous,” he said of those requests.
Ultimately, Miami Township denied the Village’s permit for that project due to a zoning issue.
At Council, Salmerón said that with “major economic development projects underway or on the horizon,” the Village can’t afford any project delays or onerous restrictions at the county level.
By email, Salmerón clarified that he was referring to Cresco Labs’ five-year expansion plan, two building projects being undertaken by Dave Chappelle (a comedy club in the former Miami Township firehouse and unannounced plans for the Union Schoolhouse), the planned 138-unit Oberer housing development and other permits that were “currently stuck in the Greene County system.”
Salmerón said that the Village could run its own department but contract out much of the work to independent contractors or even other municipalities or counties. At its most basic level, a part-time administrator could manage inquiries, with the rest of the functions outsourced. The building office could also be part of the Village Planning and Zoning Department, and utilize the iWorqs scheduling system the Village already uses.
“There’s nothing that we lose by certifying Yellow Springs as a building department,” Salmerón said.
Reached for comment, Greene County Chief Building Official Al Kuzma said that the last year was challenging for the department, but it is continuing to meet state-set deadlines to respond to permits and adding new efficiencies.
At one point last year, six staff members were out with COVID-19, and Kuzma himself missed a month when he was hospitalized for the illness. Although that caused some delays, permits still were completed via the state’s process, he said.
“We pulled together here,” he said. “We did our job.”
An outgoing voicemail message at the county building department still says, “Due to the absence of several staff members, wait times may be increased. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience.”
Before the pandemic, in 2019, the department was as busy as it had ever been, Kuzma added, in part due to the tornado that tore through the Beavercreek area in May. That year the department collected more than $1.5 million in fees on 5,000 to 6,000 permits. Although permits were down last year, they were still high due to an increase in residential construction.
“There was a big boom in residential,” he said. “A lot of new houses were driven by the interest rate drop. Instead of spending money on vacation, people made home improvements.”
Currently, the county building department has a staff of 13 and contracts with two companies. Kuzma, who has worked at the department since 1998, said finding code professionals has been another challenge, as most come from the construction industry and/or trades, like carpenters and electricians. It’s a challenge Yellow Springs would also face.
“There is a mass exodus of code professionals throughout the country,” Kuzma said.
As for efficiencies, Kuzma said the department started the electronic review of commercial plans in March 2020, and is looking to roll out electronic plan review for residential later this year. He said the department’s mission is to help homeowners and developers while ensuring “safe buildings,” and that he is open to suggestions for improving their work.
“If anyone has any good ideas, I’m happy to listen to them,” he said.
The Village previously ran its own building department, which Miami Township Zoning Inspector Richard Zopf estimates was at least 50 years ago. At that time, the Village also had its own building code, which he recalls was “a little more progressive” than other regulations at the time.
Salmerón said that, initially at least, the Village building department would use the same codes that Greene County does, which includes a combination of state and national codes.
Asked how the Village would improve on the county’s service, Salmerón said the Village could offer a “better experience” that is more streamlined. The Village could also offer expedited services for a fee that would cover overtime expenses.
Over the last seven years, the county has collected $221,680 in fees from 1,329 building projects in Yellow Springs, according to figures shared by Salmerón. That comes out to an average of $31,668 and 190 projects annually.
Other municipalities the size of Yellow Springs have their own building departments, Salmerón added, including the Village of West Jefferson in Madison County, which has a population of 4,200 but serves 60,000 people with building permits and inspections, he said.
“Jefferson faced a similar challenge that we are facing,” Salmerón said. “They have key economic development goals, and their partner was just not doing it for them, so they started to do it for themselves.”
Council members were supportive. Council member Laura Curliss said she was “all for it,” but was “frustrated” that village residents would still be paying for the county service via taxes.
“It’s one more example of taxpayers providing Greene County money to provide a service that we say we’re not very happy with,” she said. “We don’t get any of our money back to help run it, so that’s -frustrating.”
Ultimately, the department would bring benefits for the local community, and economy, Salmerón believes.
“When I think about how the Village can position itself for opportunities down the road and build some economic resiliency, having a strong and effective building department is essential to that.”
In other Council business—
• Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of the Asian American Pacific Islander, or AAPI, community, and condemning anti-AAPI hate. Council committed to making the village “open and safe for members of the AAPI community,” and to “actively advocate for our villagers who are members of the AAPI community.” Resident Migiwa Orimo thanked Council for the resolution. “There is a sense of urgency to address the hate crimes against AAPI individuals so I really really appreciate you showing your support and advocacy,” she said.
• Council unanimously passed the first reading of an ordinance adding Juneteenth, June 19, as a paid holiday for municipal employees. Juneteeth commemorates the emancipation of those who were enslaved in the U.S. Planning has begun for a local Juneteenth event.
• Council passed a resolution granting a bid to trim trees around Village utility lines to Gray’s Tree Experts of Troy. Gray’s submitted the lowest bid of $90,000 to win the contract.
Return to in-person
Council members will return to Council chambers for its June 7 regular meeting after the statewide, and village, states of emergency are lifted on June 2. Through at least the month of July, Council will run hybrid meetings, with participation possible in person or via Zoom. In Council chambers, masks will be encouraged and chairs will be six feet apart. In addition, Rooms A&B will be available as an alternative space for people to watch the meetings and participate remotely. To receive the Zoom link to the meeting, email Council Clerk Judy Kintner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Energy portfolio discussion
Mike Migliore of American Municipal Power, the Village’s electric supplier, gave a talk on upcoming changes to the local electricity portfolio. Currently, Yellow Springs’ power purchases are 78% renewable, a figure that could rise to 93% when two contracts (for landfill gas and wind energy) are replaced next year.
Migliore shared that AMP received 33 proposals for electric power and is negotiating with three finalists. Specifically, he is looking at contracts for 5 megawatts from a hydropower plant in Virginia and 2 megawatts from various solar projects. He will return to Council soon with a proposal. The cost of electricity should remain stable at around 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour over the next four to five years, Migliore said.
Demand for electricity in Yellow Springs has declined since 1999, when the village was close to needing a new distribution line to accommodate peak use, Migliore said. Since then, conservation efforts have kept demand stable. The Village is on track to use 37 million kilowatt hours of electricity this year.
Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen proposed a new position at the Village to implement a Climate Action Plan by helping the community reduce its greenhouse gases and become more resilient. The position would be funded by the sale of some of the town’s renewable energy credits, or RECs. The Sustainability Coordinator would work in the domains of energy, buildings, transportation, native habitat, water, local food and waste reduction, according to a written proposal. Council took no action. Council member Curliss favored a plan but was skeptical of creating a position. Council member Lisa Kreeger said she needed more information.
• Before the meeting, Council had a 30-minute executive session for the discussion of the potential sale of Village-owned property. No action was taken.
• Gary Zaremsky and Susan Stiles were sworn in as voting members of the Planning Commission.
• Salmerón announced that the Village had received a grant of $439,000 from the Ohio Public Works Commission for a storm sewer improvement project along Dayton Street between Walnut Street and the John Bryan Center and on the east side of Winter Street. The local match is $68,000.
• During the Citizens Concerns portion of the agenda, Judith Hempfling spoke about the Limestone Street sidewalk project. She said she wished there was more communication between Village staff and neighbors whose property is affected.
Council’s next regular meeting is Monday, June 7, in Council Chambers and via Zoom.