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Lawmaker wants to sidestep delays in state approval

By Dan Shaw 

When the global manufacturer 3M Co. was seeking in 2011 to modify its factory in Menomonie, the company received repeated requests from state officials for more information about building plans.

Without answers, state officials would not give the company permission to rebuild a part of the 712,000-square-foot building and add a production line. The resulting delay, said Jim Fay, plant manager, cost the company not only time but probably money.

“In fairness to the state, it was a bit unusual,” he said. “We were repurposing a building. From a building code perspective, maybe that added a little bit of complexity.”

Now, a state lawmaker whose district includes Menomonie wants to make sure companies in Wisconsin can avoid similar delays. State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, has proposed legislation that would let companies begin putting in foundations and footings before obtaining state approval.

Senate Bill 379 was discussed Jan. 7 by members of the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee and will be put to a vote by the same committee this week. At the public hearing, Harsdorf said the idea for the legislation came from a company with a wide-flung presence in the United States.

boxitThe only company to have registered in favor of the bill is St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M. Fay acknowledged Monday that officials at the company’s Menomonie plant had told Harsdorf of the delays in the 2011 project.

Also lobbying in favor of the bill, according to the Government Accountability Board’s website, are three groups that represent developers: the Wisconsin Builders Association, the Wisconsin Realtors Association and the Wisconsin Rental Housing Legislative Council. The site lists no opponents and only one organization, the Wisconsin chapter of the American Institute of Architects, as being undecided.

Bill Babcock, executive director of the architects group, said he was puzzled about the need for the bill. Aside from letting foundation work proceed without state approval, the legislation would have state statutes spell out deadline requirements that already are in administrative rules, which also have the force of law.

SB 379, for instance, would make state officials responsible for authorizing the start of construction projects within three days of receiving plans and for issuing a final ruling within 15 days. State officials could push back the deadlines only to collect information needed to make a permit application complete.

Those provisions are in state rules, which, Babcock said, have the advantage of being easier than statutes to change. He questioned the wisdom of using legislation to modify building codes and procedures, a practice that he said would be cumbersome.

Several parts of the code, Babcock said, are kept updated using rules changes made in accordance with the advice of building-trades experts. Legislators, in contrast, may have little time or inclination to review such technical matters every few years.

“They deal with all sorts of issues,” Babcock said. “My guess is that none of them have a whole lot of expertise in state building codes.”

Before the 2011 project, 3M’s factory in Menomonie had made films used in the screens of electronic devices, reflective materials for road signs, hooks for disposable diapers and various other products. The 2011 project transformed a former warehouse into a production area designed to win certain types of government contracts, which Fay declined to describe.

For security purposes, 3M officials decided to strengthen the walls of the former warehouse section, a change that necessitated foundation improvements. The project received the company’s official approval in April 2011, he said.

Nearly three months then went by before 3M obtained permission for the foundation work from the state’s Department of Safety and Professional Services, which inspects most commercial buildings in the state. Calls to the department were not returned by deadline Monday afternoon.

Fay said he is not aware if 3M now has plans to modify the Menomonie factory further. He did say, though, that the plant has been expanded a dozen times since being opened in 1974, making it likely that similar projects will occur.

Usually, he said, those additions come with jobs, giving lawmakers one reason to be eager to remove bureaucratic obstacles. The 2011 modification was supposed to bring employment to 30 additional workers, but the plant has not obtained as many government contracts as first expected and that hiring goal has not been reached.

In contemplating letting 3M go forward with foundation and footing work without government approval, lawmakers are not proposing to eliminate all of the state’s oversight powers. SB 379 explicitly states that the risk of a later disapproval must be borne solely by a company that chooses to proceed.

Fay said such a warning would be enough to give 3M officials pause when considering projects in Wisconsin but probably would not be a reason to hold off.

“Usually our company is contracted with a construction firm that has professional engineers that will design the foundation to a generally high standard,” he said. “Generally, the risk for us is pretty low.”

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