The building business in Columbia County can no longer be business as usual.
That was the case Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson laid out before more than 170 builders, developers, engineers, site contractors and surveyors who filled the Savannah Rapids Pavilion on Wednesday.
Johnson told those in attendance that there were numerous problems that needed to be addressed – crumbling road beds and collapsed asphalt, poor erosion control, faulty stormwater plans and disregard of construction code and permitting processes.
The cumulative effects amount to a lot of headaches and taxpayer money being spent to correct the problems, Johnson said.
“As of today, Columbia County is facing more than $100,000 in stormwater lawsuits,” he said.
In addition, the county has accumulated more than $100,000 in repairs to failed subdivision roads and $200,000 in stormwater and drainage repairs, since July 1. Johnson said bills will continue to mount until something changes.
Some of those changes will be more stringent enforcement of the rules, codes and procedures that govern the construction business. Johnson told builders and developers he would need their help to enforce the regulations and to come up with ways to make the enforcement a non-adversarial, more cooperative process.
“Columbia County has not changed or implemented a new ordinance in the past two years, we are just enforcing the ones that are there,” he said.
Johnson explained that the recent reorganization of the county’s various development departments have been designed to make the process of construction, from acquiring initial zoning approvals to signing off on final building inspections, work as a smoother, better integrated process.
“We need to get a grasp of this and see how we can handle it better going forward,” said Johnson, who was careful not to point fingers or lay blame on any particular business or builder. In fact, he laid the majority of the blame at the feet of the county for allowing such problems to occur.
Johnson did not comment directly of the recent exit of Development Services Director Richard Harmon, but only acknowledged that there was too much for one department director to handle, which prompted the reorganization.
“With so many things going on and trying to do them all at the same time, nothing was being done well,” he said.
Mark Herbert, president of Herbert Homes Inc., said he didn’t really think there were that many problems to be addressed, especially on the builder’s side of the equation.
“I think the building department is fine,” said Herbert, who also serves as chairman of the county’s Construction Advisory Board. “They’ve got a few loose ends they need to adjust in the engineering and final inspection areas.”
Herbert said he thought a lot of the problems Johnson brought up had to do with contractors and engineers changing plans without seeking the proper authorization.
He praised the county’s building inspectors for doing a thorough job.
“One or two more inspectors could help lighten the load on others, but our building inspection department is second to none,” he said.
Developer and builder Jim Bartley said the problems that Johnson brought up go deeper in the system and have been brewing in the county for more than a decade.
“For two years everything he talked about was something brought up in Construction Advisory Board meetings, which was overseen by Richard Harmon,” Bartley said. “He had to report something to somebody, and nothing happened.”
Bartley said another big issue is the amount of work being done by unlicensed individuals, and by property owners who fail to get the proper permits.
Bartley said he has been complaining about these issues for more than 10 years. He said previous County Administrator Steve Szablewski, failed to act on these problems.
He said he hopes the meeting will air some issues and will result in some changes. He said the blame for the problems ultimately falls on the county.
“The county basically admitted their inspectors did not do their jobs,” he said.