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Permit backlog must be eased

Proposed state legislation would speed the permitting process

Proposed state legislation would speed the permitting process for Long Island building projects. Credit: Bloomberg/George Frey

The failure of the State Legislature to approve a bill that would jump-start the Long Island economy by easing a backlog of building permits is frustrating: It exposes the limited power of the region's legislative delegation and likely will hold up the Island's recovery.

The bill, which would allow engineers and architects to certify that their planned projects met state codes so they could obtain permits and start work more quickly, only applied to Long Island. And while State Sen. Jim Gaughran and Assemb. Steve Stern made amendments and tried to push the bill through, they were met by a wall of opposition they couldn't break.

That leaves Long Island at a standstill. In some towns and villages, it's taking more than five months to obtain a permit. That's a lot of waiting and economic stagnation that ripples through related industries from plumbing to landscaping.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the region can't afford to lose that kind of time.

The pushback came in part from the Civil Service Employees Association, whose officials said they saw building permit approvals as "essential functions" of local government and pointed to safety issues. But there are no safety issues with permits, as the rest of the process, from inspections to certificates of occupancy, wouldn't change. And there would be ways to provide oversight. The CSEA, unsurprisingly, suggests the backlog could be alleviated with more resources and staff. But adding public workers isn't always the way to resolve bureaucratic sclerosis.

It's worrisome that Long Island's senators and Assembly members couldn't get this Long Island-specific bill through, even as they beat back other bills that would have hurt the region. The delegation has to develop a stronger voice and tighter relations with leadership so the region's needs supersede a union's reach and quell objections from lawmakers from outside the area. There's no reason out-of-region legislators should have opposed a bill with no negative impact, when Long Island members supported it. The situation seems to undercut the argument of Democrats that they have more clout as majority conference members.

The State Senate should revisit the bill if it returns to work in the coming weeks, as expected, and the State Assembly should follow suit. This is too important to wait until next year.

Absent a state fix, municipalities should make changes quickly to ease the backlogs. That starts with bringing the permit process online; too many towns and villages, amazingly, still use paper. Some, like the Town of Hempstead, have moved the process online — and that's helped. Experts and advocates say it should take no more than 30 days to process a permit. That's a good goal.

But the ultimate goal is even simpler: Cut the red tape, and get Long Island building again.

Editorials are written by members of the editorial board, a group of opinion journalists whose views on the issues of the day reflect the longstanding values of Newsday.