For custom-home builder Eric Lakeman, applying for a building permit means driving an hour into downtown Omaha, waiting in line with other contractors carrying rolls of blueprints, and driving another hour back to his Bennington office.
Lakeman's time will be better spent when the Omaha Planning Department, after months of delay, this winter rolls out a new electronic permit review system where builders and homeowners will be able to submit plans online for electronic review and approval.
The local building industry is funding the improvements, including hardware, software and city staff training, through extra fees approved last year.
The change could reduce wait time from two weeks to two days for some homebuilders, said Jay Davis, superintendent of the city's Permits and Inspection Division.
“The building community is going to notice a huge difference in how we do business,” he said.
Davis acknowledges he has been slow to deliver on the changes. Formerly the chief building inspector, Davis was promoted in December 2011 and talked about aggressive change.
“Where I told them I would be in September of this year, we are not quite there,” he said.
He spoke Nov. 8 to the Metro Omaha Builders Association and apologized for the delays. He explained that in the process of upgrading the city's permitting software, he discovered the division also needed new hardware, which is now being leased on a three-year schedule.
“It sounds like we're now starting to get some progress, but it's measured progress,” said Lakeman, vice president of MOBA's board. “We need things to go faster.”
Now, over the next several months, the division will roll out several new services designed to speed up the building permit process.
Chiefly, contractors and homeowners will be able to submit building plans electronically instead of on paper, and city staff will be able to review and approve the plans electronically, reducing the amount of time it takes to shuffle stacks of paper plans around city offices.
Other changes will include online license renewal, making it easier for, say, an electrician to renew and pay for his license. Code enforcement services will be tied into the system, so inspectors can better track violations. And city planning and zoning records will be connected to the permitting system to unite all of a project's paperwork from start to finish.
All of the services are available through Accela, a software system for government permitting and land management agencies. The City of Lincoln started using the software in 2011. Omaha first started using Accela in 2005, when it approved a $1.1 million contract.
Before then, “pretty much everything was on paper,” Davis said.
In recent years, the software has made several Omaha planning department services easier and more mobile: Building inspectors now carry smartphones instead of clipboards to project sites; contractors can schedule inspections online; anyone can track the progress of a permit online; and, as of 2011, people can apply online for about 20 types of permits that don't require a plan review, such as those for lawn sprinklers, siding and windows.
The coming changes will take the system even further, Davis said.
Contractors like Lakeman as well as architects and even ambitious do-it-yourself home remodelers will be able to upload building plans without leaving their desks. The electronic plan review rollout will start with simple plans like those for fences and sheds, then detached garages. Next will come planned subdivisions where there are a limited number of home designs.
Then, more complex and custom home plans will be reviewed electronically, and finally, the city will integrate commercial building permits into the system.
People who prefer paper or who don't have the resources to submit online plans can still bring paper to city hall. The permit division will be purchasing large-bed scanners so they can scan blueprints and get those into the system.
But Davis tells builders, “I don't want to see them in my office anymore.” He knows they work all over the city, often from a mobile “office” in the cab of their truck.
“We need to be more user-friendly,” he said. “Our environment has changed. Our society has changed.”
He acknowledged government hasn't changed as quickly.
“We didn't move forward as fast as the industry wanted,” he said. “The industry wants the online permit review, but we've had a whole bunch of things we had to do to get to this point today.”
Jerry Standerford, a homebuilder and president of MOBA, said, “We understand the timing. Everything doesn't happen just overnight. Of course, we'd like to see it come a little quicker. We're excited that it is happening.”
Standerford and Lakeman said the industry wanted change so badly it was willing to pay extra for it.
The City Council in 2011 approved new building permit fees that are funding a new “technology and training” budget for the permit division. The fund has $348,000 available for use in the 2013 fiscal year.
The surcharge is 8 percent of other permit fees up to $625, $50 for projects with fees between $625 and $2,499, and $100 for projects with fees $2,500 and above.
The city in July authorized the department to use $82,500 of the fund to buy new Accela licenses and a four-year maintenance agreement. The fund also will pay for customer service training and to train front-desk staff to be able to review basic plans on the spot, something other cities offer but Omaha doesn't.
Some individual builders opposed the cost, but three groups supported it: MOBA, the Mechanical Contractors Association of Omaha and the Nebraska Building Chapter of Associated General Contractors of America.
“Eventually, we think there will be a cost savings to us that we can ultimately pass on to the consumer,” Standerford said.
Contact the writer: