Building permit prices skyrocket in basin: Staff exodus at TRPA slows review process |

Building permit prices skyrocket in basin: Staff exodus at TRPA slows review process

Gregory Crofton

Pay more and wait less. John Singlaub, executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, is betting that people who want to build around the lake are willing to pay more so they have less of a wait to obtain a permit.

Large fee increases approved Wednesday as part of a four-month trial will, for example, raise the price of applying for a permit to build a 500-square foot addition on a single family home from $653 to $1,075.

The money generated by increases that take effect March 1 will be used to hire more staff and speed up permit processing at the TRPA, a bistate agency established in 1969 to regulate development and protect Lake Tahoe.

Singlaub aims to reduce the maximum review time for applications from 120 to 60 days by the end of 2005, a task that grows more challenging as the number of building applications filed at the agency is on the rise.

“We cannot engage the public on the bigger issues until we get (project review) sorted out,” Singlaub said.

But that’s not the end of the story. The fee increases are one part of Singlaub’s overhaul of the agency, which includes reorganizing how it operates and making it customer-friendly by allowing people to do things like file a building proposal or check its status on the Web.

Along the way, though, Singlaub has lost some key employees. Of the agency’s 75 full-time employees, 14 have quit since Singlaub became executive director in January 2004. Four jobs are vacant at the agency, said Julie Regan, TRPA communications director.

Some of the turnover can be attributed to culture shock. As of Jan. 1, instead of operating the TRPA by department, Singlaub broke the agency into branches that draw from one labor pool. Employees now must devote a certain number of hours to a variety of jobs, which allows them to see a project through from start to finish.

“We’re becoming a project-oriented staff, and that has created changes for us,” said Carl Hasty, TRPA deputy executive director. “We’re going through a transition right now.”

Two of the employees who have quit, both within the last two months, had a combined 21 years of experience in reviewing building applications. As a result, the TRPA is expected to process about 50 percent fewer building permits in the next several months, an important fact as the core of the construction season begins May 1.

Losing staff is never a good thing because it puts the agency in “hiring and training mode,” Singlaub said. But the money generated by the fee increases will help TRPA replace staff members who left and eventually hire three additional staff members.

“We need to start the cash flow as soon as we can. It’s critical that this be done and done quickly,” Singlaub said of the fee increases.

The TRPA Governing Board, which met Wednesday at Stateline, listened to Singlaub’s message and met him halfway. The board – skittish about approving such large increases and unsure whether the public had adequate notice of the issue – indicated that it recognized the value in Singlaub’s message.

Board agrees

After much debate the board unanimously agreed to allow the fees to be increased for four months, March to July. It promised to review how the fee schedule is working either in May or June.

“I agree with John. What I’ve heard from everybody is ‘I want to get my project through,'” said Bruce Kranz, Placer County supervisor, one of seven Governing Board members who represent California. “They are willing to pay if they get that commitment, a guarantee of 60 days. We can’t afford to keep waiting and waiting.”

The fee increase is part of Singlaub’s reorganization, but it also was on a list of recommendations made last year by Strategica, a government auditing firm that last year analyzed how the agency operates.

For years the TRPA has subsidized the cost of reviewing building projects, many of which are becoming more complicated as people seek to build on fragile land or redevelop property, said Lyn Barnett, chief of environmental review services at the TRPA.

“We’ve made the fees more consistent with those of other government agencies and local jurisdictions,” said Julie Regan, TRPA communications director. “Every time we ask the public for more money it is a concern, and we take it very seriously. People have told us that they are willing to pay more if the service is there. We just have to deliver.”

Jan Brisco, a planning consultant at the Lake Tahoe Basin, said she is trying to be optimistic about the fee increases, but the change could end up discouraging people from improving their homes.

“I’m trying to remain as supportive as I can, but they need to be justified rate increases,” Brisco said. “The board is doing the responsible thing in asking them to come back in a couple of months to see how the public accepts this.”

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at

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