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Construction boom puts pressure on county building department

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of April 8, 2021)
Photo: Dan Inman of the Indian River County Building Division inspects a home being built along Acardia Square in Vero Beach on Monday, April 5.

The sizzling-hot, local real estate market has put a strain on the county’s Building Division, where the staff has been overwhelmed by permit applications for new-home construction, major home remodeling and additions to existing homes.

The increased demand during the ongoing boom, in fact, has caused delays in the county’s processing of those applications, which must be obtained before licensed builders and contractors may begin such projects.

But Community Development Director Phil Matson said the surge in new-home construction hasn’t hurt the quality of Building Division inspections of ongoing and completed work.

He said he’s not worried about inspectors – even those hired on a temporary basis to handle the growing workload – rushing through inspections to keep up with a heavy workload and get on to the next job.

“That’s one of the least of my concerns,” Matson said. “Our inspectors, whether they’re full-time or temporary, are all licensed by the state. So, their professional futures are on the line with each inspection.

“If they cut corners or took a shortcut and some tragedy happened, they know they’d have to answer for it,” he added. “They’re not going to risk that.

“Actually, I hear more of the opposite from them: ‘I just can’t pass it ...’ for whatever the reason is.”

When there are complaints from new-home buyers about faulty work at their homes, County Building Official Scott McAdam said, they’re usually about the builder, not the inspector. Nevertheless, complaints about improper or insufficient inspections are addressed.

“Is there a chance our inspector missed something?” McAdam said. “Yes, but not often. And if we get a complaint, we will investigate. But nobody is skimping on inspections or taking shortcuts, especially with the technology we have at our disposal these days.

“We have iPads, so we can take photos and record information instantly, and the process takes less time,” he added. “We’re able to do quality inspections, even with a heavy load.

“We couldn’t do that in the ’90s.”

The Building Division currently has about 40 employees, including 33 who are permanent, full-time workers. The other seven are temporary employees, hired from one of three private agencies with which the county has annual contracts.

Matson said the division adds and drops supplemental employees, depending on its workload.

“Most people don’t know this, but the Building Division is an enterprise fund, which means it must be self-sustaining and can spend only what it takes in,” Matson said. “It doesn’t get general-fund revenue from the county.

“That’s why we try not to hire full-time people during building booms – because when there’s a bust, you’ve got to lay them off,” he continued. “That’s also why there has been a delay in processing permit applications. We need to collect the permit fees, so we have the money we need to hire the supplemental employees.

“So, there’s a gap in time,” he added. “I’d like to think we can catch up quickly, once we bring in the temporary employees, but it can be like turning a ship. It doesn’t happen as quickly as you’d like.

“Another challenge is what’s happening in the construction industry: There’s such demand right now – particularly for inspectors – that even the temporary agencies are having trouble getting the people they need.”

Matson said there has been a “spate of retirements” in the industry and, because the construction trades “are not as popular with the younger generations,” there aren’t enough professionals to replace those who are leaving.

In addition to processing a steady stream of permits for new-home construction, the Building Division also continues to receive applications for knockdowns and rebuilds, remodels and expansions, as well as new swimming pools, porch enclosures, fencing and other improvements.

Matson said the county received applications for about 750 “rebuilds or significant remodels” in the past 12 months, compared to 1,000-plus applications for new-home construction permits.

Not only are more people purchasing new homes, but some are buying and remodeling existing homes. Others, who already own homes here, are taking advantage of low interest rates or using COVID-related stimulus checks for structural expansion or other improvements.

Matson said newcomers to the county might be surprised to learn that the number of new-home construction permits in the past year is not as high as it was during the local building boom at the start of the 2000s.

According to the county’s Community Development Reports, new-home construction permit applications rose steadily through the first five years of the millennium – 2001 (1,361), 2002 (1,484), 2003 (2,050), 2004 (3,168) and 2005 (3,426) – before slipping to 2,813 in 2006 and 1,104 in 2007.

Many of those homes were never built and application numbers plummeted during the Great Recession, bottoming out at 249 in 2009 and wallowing in the 300s for the next three years.

Matson said the new-home market began to rebound noticeably in 2015, when the Building Division received 809 application permits, followed by 914 in 2016, 979 in 2017 and 1,229 in 2018.

During the current boom, much of the new-home growth has shifted from the south end of the county to the central section of the urban services area, which includes Waterway Village, Arabella Reserve, Harmony Reserve, Huntington Place, Fieldstone Ranch, The Antilles and, more recently, Lost Tree Preserve.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in the number of single-family building permits issued the past couple of years, but where we’re at now is only one-third of what it was during the boom of 2004 and 2005,” Matson said. “And where we’re at now is triple what it was during the recession.

“This reflects the uneven nature of boom-and-bust growth in Florida,” he added. “The numbers may go up and down, but we ultimately arrive at the 1.6 to 1.9 percent of annual growth projected by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economics and Business Research.”

The county has a population of about 160,000 at present, a number BEBR projects will increase to 170,000 in 2025; 180,200 in 2030; 188,200 in 2035; 195,000 in 2040; and 200,900 in 2045.

The U.S. Census reported that the county’s population was: 59,896 in 1980; 90,208 in 1990; 112,947 in 2000; and 138,028 in 2010.