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OpinionEditorial

Time to ease permit backlog

A construction site on Rockaway Blvd. in Woodmere

A construction site on Rockaway Blvd. in Woodmere in May. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

It all starts with a permit.

Building a new house. Adding a swimming pool out back, or a bedroom on the side. Erecting a garage or constructing a deck.

Such activity has a tremendous impact on Long Island's economy, by adding jobs, redeveloping land and boosting many of our key industries, from retail to finance to real estate. That's particularly important now as we head into summer, a season we hope will bring rebound and recovery.

But that could be stymied if Long Island's towns, cities and villages cannot appropriately and quickly process the building permits required to start the work. And right now, that effort is severely backlogged, with some towns taking four months or longer before even looking at a permit application. That's troubling.

A bill making its way through the State Legislature would allow a project to move forward if a professional architect or engineer certifies that the planned work meets the state's codes, without requiring the full local government permitting process. The proposed law, which applies only to Nassau and Suffolk counties, would provide a more efficient, timely way to start projects, while still maintaining town or village involvement in inspections and certifications later in the process, so that safety remains a top priority. At least five towns — including Babylon, Brookhaven, Hempstead, Huntington and Islip — have publicly supported the measure.

Importantly, the bill would expire in three years, providing enough time for the backlog to loosen and the construction industry to rebound, but also giving the state an opportunity to make sure such self-certification works well and isn't abused. It will be essential that state and local officials track the permits approved under the new process, to determine that projects are certified appropriately and to penalize those who self-certify projects that don't meet standards or otherwise misuse the new freedoms they're granted.

But the law will be a failure if town and village officials don't use the three-year reprieve to update and streamline permitting and other certification processes. They must end the backlogs and inefficiencies that now plague their operations. A more permanent fix wouldn't just help large developers hoping to start more extensive projects. It also would assist far smaller builders, along with the many Long Islanders wanting simply to improve their homes. And it would encourage all of them to do the work legally and safely.

All of that can be done without the loss of public sector jobs. The bill contains a critical provision that specifically prohibits local governments from eliminating the positions of those who handle permitting while the new certification process is in effect. If anything, the legislation should expand construction efforts across Long Island, which in turn could provide more work for everyone involved.

At a time when there's so much talk of infrastructure, of big plans and grand proposals, getting the economy going also will depend on doing the smaller stuff well.

Let the construction begin.

— The editorial board

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