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Panel taking new look at ways to speed up commercial-plan approvals

Pete Schneider, an architect and partner at Groth Design Group, testifies on July 19 in the state Capitol before the Legislative Council Study Committee on the Commercial Building Permitting Process. Schneider said state officials deserve credit for speeding up commercial-plan reviews but that too much uncertainty remains in the process. (Screen grab courtesy of WisconsinEye)

Despite recent rounds of reform, complaints linger over how long it takes state officials to turn around reviews of commercial-building projects.

Now a new legislative committee composed of lawmakers and representatives of the design and construction industries is taking a fresh look at the matter. The Legislative Council Study Committee on the Commercial Building Permitting Process, which met for the first time on July 19, is considering remedies ranging from exempting certain projects from plan-review requirements to placing greater reliance on regional review offices rather than a central office in Madison. The committee’s conclusions, due in late summer or the fall, will eventually be put into a report that state lawmakers can use as a starting point for legislation.

For many in the design and construction industries, the sticking point remains the number of weeks it takes on average to get commercial-building plans approved. Several representatives of the industry said at the hearing last week that they too often are unable to give project owners a reasonable estimate of when plans will be up for review. Such uncertainty in turn makes project timelines difficult to set.

Against this testimony, members of the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services pointed to data showing recent improvements in the timeliness of plan reviews. When Gov. Tony Evers took office in 2019, they noted, 15-week turnaround times were not uncommon.

Since then, a series of reforms instituted under DSPS Secretary Dawn Crim – who recently announced she will be stepping down at this end of this month – have reduced that time to just under six weeks. Among other things, state officials under Crim began requiring designers and architects to wait until their plans were complete before submitting them rather than turn in half-complete plans merely to secure a place on the state’s review calendar.

They also ended a practice that had allowed designers and architects at times to choose which reviewer they would be working with, a step taken to ensure the workload would be distributed equally among review staff. And they introduced an electronic filing system meant to weed out errors in submissions and keep scheduling straightforward and simple.

Many of the people present at the July 19 study committee’s meeting agreed that at least some of these reforms were steps in the right direction. But causes for frustration remain.

Pete Schneider, an architect and partner at Groth Design Group, said the DSPS does deserve credit for reducing its average time for completing reviews. But he and his colleagues too often still find themselves in the dark about exactly when the DSPS’s review clock starts. Sometimes, he said, it can take weeks to arrange a time to turn in plans.

“Right now, I submit a date, and I tell my owner: Well, cross your fingers. Hopefully, you know, it works out in our favor,” he said. “And it really makes us look bad. Because, it’s: You don’t have this figured out? I hired you to navigate this process for me.”

One possible remedy would exempt projects of a certain size from the plan-review requirements. A bill taken up by the state Legislature in 2021 would have provided an exception for most buildings with fewer than 200,000 square feet or 25 or fewer plumbing fixtures. The proposal was approved by the both the state Assembly and Senate but later vetoed by Evers.

Another remedy would have the DSPS cede some of its reviewing authority to regional offices. The department already in many cases delegates its reviewing responsibilities to local governments. With the DSPS unlikely to receive approval from the state Legislature to hire more reviewers, even more delegation could help further lighten the workload.

These and other suggestions will continue to be aired at future meetings of the study committee.

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