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City Hall critics fear retaliation for complaining about permit delays

Applicants line up at the Richmond Authorization Center when it was still open for walk-in visits before the pandemic. (BizSense File Photos)

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series examining development review processes at Richmond City Hall. For previous articles, click here and here.

Richmond builders and developers are quick to share their frustrations with the city’s permit and inspection office. But more often than not, they don’t want to put their name on it.

Many of those BizSense has spoken to over the years and in recent weeks while reporting on the office’s ongoing challenges have been quick to criticize the city and offer improvements, as long as their name stays out of an article.

A builder who asked not to be named because he is active in the city and known at city hall said: ‘I have too much to do, I don’t need to be put on this list black.”

He added: “I’m afraid to put my name on it, because I don’t want the workers there to be like, ‘He reported us. Hey, is this one of his apps? Put it at the back of the stack.

Another City Hall regular who registered his grievances in an earlier report later said he paid the price, saying he had a harder time getting permits for the project in the center of his frustrations after speaking out.

That was before the current leaders responsible for the office – Building Commissioner David Alley and Director of Planning and Development Review Kevin Vonck – were appointed last year. Both have been credited with taking recent steps that some see as cause for optimism for the future.

But such reports and perceptions among the development community remain a common refrain, and are nevertheless of concern to Vonck and Alley, they said.

Planning and Development Review Department Manager Kevin Vonck outside Richmond City Hall. He was appointed last year.

“I’m appalled to hear these kinds of comments,” said Vonck, who was named director last fall after leading the department in an interim role since early last year.

In an email, he added: “We will not tolerate any type of retaliation from our employees. If a customer feels they are being treated in a discriminatory or unfair manner, they should contact me immediately. »

Alley, a 20-year-old city worker who served in the office before being named to lead it seven months ago, said such accounts do not match his experience at city hall.

“I have received/investigated numerous complaints over the years, as you would expect. However, none related to employee retaliation or vindictiveness,” Alley said in an email.

“This type of behavior would certainly never be allowed or tolerated,” he added. “I hold myself and our staff to a higher ethical standard. How we represent ourselves reflects how we represent the City of Richmond.

Legacy issues

Vonck and Alley inherited an office that for years has been plagued by complaints from builders and developers about slow turnaround times for permits, no inspections and other delays that end up lengthening. their projects and increase their costs.

They also inherited attempted fixes that the candidates say ended up making these problems worse, such as the slow-deploying EnerGov Citizen Self Service platform that’s used to process and track online requests, and an arrangement more recently to outsource some plan reviews to a consulting firm in California.

As they sue the latter to help reduce the office’s plan review backlog, Vonck and Alley plan to phase out EnerGov in favor of an in-house system that could ultimately lead to a longer-term replacement. A planned processing software upgrade is included in the city’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

The move would end a decade-long process that only started yielding results four years ago, when EnerGov’s first deployment was launched. Additional features were rolled out in the years that followed, bringing to life what the city purchased in 2012, when it awarded a $1.6 million contract to Georgia-based EnerGov Solutions for upgrades. at system level.

Lory Markham, a former city planner who started at City Hall around the time the procurement process that led to EnerGov began, said scrapping the system, which she described as too complex and used inconsistently, is a brave but the right decision to make.

Lory Markham, a former town hall planner, now assists permit applicants through Markham Planning, her private development consultancy firm.

“The city outsourced this fundamental function of local government to this company in Atlanta, and they weren’t able to provide that function in a way that the city needed it, for a number of reasons,” said Markham, now a private development consultant.

“The acknowledgment of that by David Alley and Kevin Vonck – and the courage it took to say, ‘This system doesn’t work, we’re going to get rid of it’, after the city spent all that money and everything this time this – I think it’s a huge step in the right direction,” Markham said. “It’s no one’s fault; it just didn’t work and it caused this huge backlog.

“It’s a vindictive thing”

Now in the development consultancy business, Markham has a direct view of the requesting side of the permitting process in Richmond, interacting regularly with the office on behalf of its clients. And with his added perspective from his time at City Hall, Markham dismisses any claims of revenge or acts of retaliation from the office or City Hall as a whole.

“I just think it’s ridiculous,” Markham said with a laugh. “It’s not like there’s a list of people who, if they come in, automatically go to the bottom of the pile. Just as there is no list of people who if they enter they automatically go to the top of the pile. There is a system, and if you know how to work in this system… you will get (the license) easier.

“I always felt that the people who worked at City Hall, myself included, were there to make the city better. I never felt like there was a plot to target people.

Still, the perception remains with some developers.

Tom Wilkinson

One of them is Tom Wilkinson, whose latest project in Richmond’s development years is Port City, his conversion of the former American Tobacco Co. complex into income-based apartments.

Wilkinson, who said Port City would be his last in Richmond before a planned retirement, alleged he could not obtain a certificate of occupancy for the second phase of the project after complaining about the lack of inspection electricity in Reva Trammell, the town in the region. council representative, who he says is a friend.

“I couldn’t get the commander because I couldn’t get the damn inspectors out when they were supposed to get there,” Wilkinson said, adding that when they did arrive, “there was always something wrong. more than you needed. They didn’t like where you put a light switch or something stupid like that.

“I spoke to Dave Alley, and 30 minutes after I spoke to him, I had my CO, because I was nice and he was nice and everybody liked everybody,” he added . “But he shouldn’t have to do that. I shouldn’t have to ask favors like that.

Wilkinson said a detective told him that because he implicated Trammell he was not going to do anything to help him.

“So it’s a vindictive thing,” he said. “You’d think they’d help you, because you’re investing in their town and increasing their property tax revenue. But it’s as if they were fighting you. They try to put up every obstacle to your permit and inspection that they can. It’s like they’re going out of their way.

Others shared similar sentiments, including Councilman Andreas Addison, who experienced his own frustrations with the permitting process when trying to open a gymnasium at Scott’s Addition.

“I was expected to find the solution, rather than being, ‘Hey, here’s what we’ll accept,'” Addison said. He added that such frustrations with the process and the city’s delays have caused some to avoid doing business there.

Councilman Andreas Addison outside Scott’s Addition space which he is converting into a gym.

“I had contracted with general contractors, plumbers and electricians to carry out work. I got hung up when I told them the address,” he said. “To be hooked because of the address and the location in the city of Richmond is fascinating. People just say, pretty much, ‘No, I’m not interested.’ It was a very revealing experience.

Markham, the former city planner, acknowledged that there can be some variation in the responsiveness of City Hall staff depending on the circumstances. But she said it was human nature, not revenge.

“If you’re doing your job and someone is yelling at you and all you’re trying to do is help them, you’ll be less inclined to be quick,” Markham said. “If you go down there with a hammer yelling at people, they might give it to you so you get rid of their face this time. But they won’t be inclined to bend over backwards to help you next time.

“But people who go down to City Hall and treat people like people and understand human nature are the people who will get their license the easiest.”

“You don’t know what you don’t know”

Alley, the building commissioner, said he was committed to showing that such a culture does not exist and will not be tolerated in the office. He said he also wanted the public to feel free to air their grievances without fear of reprisal.

“Nobody likes to receive a complaint. However, complaints are a useful tool for improving customer service and should be used as an opportunity to evaluate our services,” Alley said in an email. “You don’t know what you don’t know until someone speaks!”

Addison, the councilman, said such a dialogue will be needed as the city works to improve the process. Having experienced this as a first-time business owner, he said he wants to see the development community come together with city staff to communicate what’s broken and how best to fix it.

“I want to hear from developers, architects, contractors, to share what the process needs to be,” Addison said. “The more you can get that kind of commitment throughout the process, the more successful it is, and all of a sudden we’ve done what we’ve been asked to do for 15 years and put that at the center of what we want to do for economic development.”

Markham agreed.

“Everyone recognizes that there is a problem. So how to fix it? I think everyone coming together to try to solve the problem together is the best solution,” she said, “and everyone recognizes that this is not going to be something that will be solved in a month. It took decades to get there.

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