A coalition of local officials, solar power companies and developers’ groups is backing proposed legislation that would allow state-licensed engineers and architects to self-certify construction projects, a change they say will speed up the building permit process and reignite the COVID-hobbled construction industry.
But the Civil Service Employees Association, a municipal employees union that represents thousands of workers across the state, opposes the idea, saying safety could be compromised if the normal government process of issuing building permits is delegated to the project contractors.
"The primary responsibility of the municipal workers currently overseeing this work is to ensure the safety of building projects," said CSEA spokesman Mark Kotzin. "Unfortunately, developers may have other motives, and allowing them to self-certify with only random municipal audits could lead to safety problems."
Backers of the two bills point to successful self-certification permitting programs in New York City as an example that they work and don’t compromise safety. They say passage of the bills could shave weeks or more from the two weeks to several months it takes some local governments to issue building permits. Though the bill has the backing of leaders in Brookhaven and Huntington towns, an official in Floral Park, one village criticized for delayed approvals, says it’s not needed.
A bill sponsored by State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) would let local governments launch self-certification programs that would ease backlogs by allowing building permits to be issued based on documentation filed by the licensed architects and engineers, rather than the typical review by its building department. A second, related bill would let governments accept certain construction documents from the outside professionals to expedite issuing of certificates of occupancy.
Assemb. Steve Otis (D-Rye) has sponsored Assembly versions of the bills, which await full votes in the State Legislature. Both would need Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature.
‘Reducing roadblocks, costs’
The measures have the backing of the Association for a Better Long Island, the Long Island Builders Institute, the Long Island Association and local government leaders at Brookhaven and Huntington Towns, among others.
Gaughran said the measures would help clear backlogged building permits and help spark a local economy that remains hampered by the pandemic.
Solar installation companies say slow approvals by local building departments can lead to long delays and cost overruns.
"It’s about reducing the roadblocks and reducing costs," said David Schieren, chief executive of EmPower Solar, an Island Park solar-energy and battery installer. "Permits can sit in a building department for two to three weeks, and many [municipalities] can take more than two months" for approvals, he said, adding self-certification could shave weeks off construction time and about $750 from the cost of a typical solar rooftop installation.
But the CSEA said the bills could potentially take work from its members and could lead to safety issues.
Advocates said only state-licensed professionals, including architects and engineers, would be allowed to certify the construction plans and other documents, essentially putting their licenses on the line when they certify a project plan.
"Union leadership should be more concerned about the lack of future economic development investment along with a resulting retreat in tax revenue, because if those events occur the impact on municipal government staffing will be nothing short of catastrophic," said Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a developers’ group that is leading the coalition.
Only municipalities that want to allow self-certification would participate. Building inspections would still take place to make certain the projects comply with building and safety codes, and towns would sign off on the final construction, Strober said.
The permits, which are issued based on a project's compliance with local zoning and safety requirements, would be granted approval based on the architect or engineer's certification, rather than a full internal review.
Time to process applications
In 2019, an environmental advocacy group ranked local governments for the ability to quickly process applications for solar building permits at a reasonable cost. The Citizens Campaign for the Environment survey listed Long Beach, East Hampton and Southampton as among the best with just six to 17 days to approve a permit. Among the longest for approvals were Floral Park, which required 136 days, the survey found.
Renee Marcus, superintendent of the Floral Park Building Department, said the village hasn’t taken a position on the legislation, but said a self-certification program is unnecessary.
"We don’t have enough [permit] volume where it would be necessary," Marcus said.
Once all materials for a building permit are received, she said, turnaround time is usually just two to four weeks. Marcus said it could be longer for solar permits, in part because the plans must be presented to an architectural review board, and the plans reviewed by the fire chief. The architectural review board meets once a month, so if project presenters miss a meeting they have to wait a month for the next.