More permit headaches for local builders?

Health department warns of slowdowns, delays - but fewer in Ashe

WEST JEFFERSON-The Appalachian District Health Department sounded the alarm Friday on likely delays in the agency’s septic and well permitting process.

It’s a wrench in the works for property owners and home builders looking to make headway on home projects before winter sets in.

The good news? Ashe won’t be hit as hard by the delays as neighboring counties, according to Beth Lovette, the Director of the Appalachian District Health Department.

She traces the problem to the sudden unexpected loss of environmental health inspectors at a time of year when her agency is at its busiest.

Inspectors in Watauga and Alleghany Counties have resigned, retired or transferred to counties outside the district in recent weeks at a pace she said she can’t quickly replace.

“So we’ve got people that are coming to us seeking permits and we just don’t have the staff we need to meet that demand as fast as we’d like,” Lovette said. “Everybody here is feeling the pressure.”

So what’s the fix? At least two inspectors-in-training will be ready to work soon and Lovette is authorizing overtime to help her remaining staff wade through the permit backlog. She also admitted she’s willing to pay more than the going rate – about 10 percent more – to lure an already certified inspector to the district.

The bright spot? Lovette said her Ashe County inspection team remains at full strength. She said they could be called on to fill in at understaffed offices in Watauga and Alleghany, but said that wouldn’t be the norm.

The district’s permitting procedures have been a sore spot for High Country builders for years. In 2012, home builders complained at public forums in Fleetwood and Jefferson about the time it took to receive permits – and the attitude they said health department inspectors met them with.

Lovette made immediate changes, including improving communication between her inspectors and customers and becoming one of two health departments in the state to invest in (with the financial support of local Realtors) and implement a new online permit search database.

With funding from the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, Lovette said she was also able to hire a second local inspector in recent years – a move she said put the county on relatively solid footing compared to Watauga and Alleghany.

Still, some local builders, like Maurice Jordan, complain that inspection staff remain unwilling to work through permit problems with builders.

“The right attitude still isn’t there, not at the top,” Jordan said. “The current inspectors, they’re doing such a good job, they’re such sticklers for procedure, that it’s grinding everything to a halt. I’m talking ridiculous stuff that shouldn’t hold up a project. And now they’re shorthanded, which is going to make things worse.”

Lovette said she has full confidence in Andrew Blethen, the district’s environmental health supervisor.

“I feel strongly that Andy is very experienced and customer service oriented and very professional and I’ve really had no specific complaints at all,” Lovette said.

Reach Adam Orr at 336-846-7164 or
Health department warns of slowdowns, delays – but fewer in Ashe
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