Metropolis: Wednesday, February 15, 2006
The bulldozers finished leveling La Familia’s old home long before the new one was ready.
Red Tape District

Business owners say permit delays are seriously hurting them — and the city.


The Black Dog Tavern is back — at night at least. During the day, owner Tad Gaither oversees work at the unfinished business, which opened last week with amenities still missing, having made the move from downtown to its new location just off West Seventh Street. Gaither proudly shows off the new $20,000 refrigeration system that keeps the beer as cold as possible, but other features are still missing. A café that is supposed to reside at the back of the building on Crockett Street is still under construction. But even if the Black Dog is a work in progress at the moment, Gaither could not afford to not open the bar.

“We were closed for six weeks, which was really straining the business” he said. “The second I got the certificate of occupancy, I opened the place.” Why was the bar so long in the dark? A huge permit backlog at city hall put the new Dog two months behind schedule and “way over budget” according to Gaither.

Fort Worth is exploding — at least according to figures from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which say that the city has grown almost 16 percent since 2000. With this rapid climb in population, both housing and commerce have boomed, resulting in hip, ambitious developments like the Montgomery Plaza “urban village” sprouting on West Seventh. But, some, like Gaither, argue that the city’s development department has not kept pace with the increased number of permit applications that now deluge its offices.

“It took 44 days for the permit process to even begin,” said Gaither.

Bob Riley, director of the city’s development department, agreed that processing time for permits has been a problem for his office in recent months.

“We had an inordinate amount of applications that we couldn’t process fast enough starting at the end of last summer,” he said. “The cause for this is that there is so much building going on, and I didn’t have full staffing at the time or the resources to address all permits.”

How overwhelmed are they? Riley said that by September of last year, about 1,300 applications were awaiting review from the city, and they just kept coming, forcing as many as 30 staffers in the department to work on Saturdays through October and November to try to whittle down the queue. As of Monday of last week, the backlog stood at 520, and the turnaround time was averaging two weeks for residential permits and 90 days for commercial permits.

Gaither’s permit woes have ended now, but the delay has taken a toll. “This was a financially healthy business, but after being idle for six weeks, now we’re in a precarious position,” he said.

He’s not alone: Al Cavazos, the well-known host at West Seventh Street mainstay restaurant La Familia, went through similar headaches. In his case, Cavazos said, the 16 inspections that the city required for his new location on Foch Street delayed his reopening for a month and a half — until weeks after his old building had been torn down. He opened in the new location to the obvious relief of loyal customers who immediately filled up the new, larger space.

Cavazos is not angry with the city for the problems this presented for the business, but he thinks more inspectors are needed. “I’m just upset that the city hasn’t brought staffing in the development department up to where you don’t have to wait too long for the inspections and permits,” he said. “This happened mostly due to the shortage of help there. It just backs everything up.”

At the Black Dog, multiple inspections also apparently resulted in confusion on the city’s part, according to Gaither. “One person would say we don’t need something and then another would say we do,” he said. “When the inspector came for the final inspection, he thought he was here for the initial inspection. It’s unsatisfactory for this kind of thing to happen.”

Johndavid Bartlett, who has managed the development of the new Black Dog and will lease space within the tavern for the café, said that the development department is “too broken up into sections.”

“When I called with a question, the person with the city said ‘We don’t answer questions,’” said Bartlett. “How does that help anybody?”

“The most frightening thing is that the contractors I’ve talked to seem to think that Fort Worth is a hard city to work for,” said Gaither. “The city is shooting us all in the foot. All the talent is going to leak away to cities that are friendlier, and it’s a shame.”

Riley said that, in response to the problem, Fort Worth did expand the development department. In the last year, the budget was increased from about $7.5 million to $8.3 million, and 17 new positions were added, bringing the staff to 113 employees — although that includes six people in the police alarm permit division that was consolidated with his department.

“Staff has increased 25 percent since 1999,” he said. “It’s a significant increase, but we also continue to see a significant increase in the volume of work that hasn’t slowed down. There can always be more resources but the key is using them efficiently.”

The city has also contracted with private companies that businesses can go through instead of asking the city directly for reviews of permit applications. Riley said this has lessened his department’s workload and reduced turnaround times for commercial permits from 90 to 14 days.

But Gaither, whose permit process was handled by one of the third-party companies working for the city, was not impressed. “It’s common knowledge that if you go in to the city development department trying to get something, you’re lucky to get out,” he said. “But doing it through the third party was supposed to expedite things, and I’m not sure it made a difference.”

The development department could cut its turnaround time for permits dramatically, Riley said, but at a price. “It boils down to what the individual wants to pay for the service,” he said. “I can guarantee a one-day turnaround, but it would send our costs through the roof. Our last check for permit fees showed we were in the middle of the pack for cities in the west of the Metroplex.”

The Black Dog Tavern is doing well even in its incomplete state, and Gaither remains optimistic. “I think this area’s going to work very well for us,” he said. “But the permit trouble was completely unnecessary.” l

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