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Audit shows big problems with demo permitting

Wednesday, August 23, 2017 by Jo Clifton

The Office of the City Auditor has found that the city’s demolition permitting process is not designed efficiently and contains gaps that allow unsafe practices during demolition.

According to an audit approved by the City Council Audit and Finance Committee Tuesday, the two departments in charge of demolition permitting, Development Services and Planning and Zoning, do not appear to have the processes in place to adequately address risk of injury to residents from inexperienced contractors as well as asbestos and lead paint.

In addition, the city’s electric and water infrastructure is at risk, as are trees close to properties being demolished.

The audit states, “State law requires that property owners test for asbestos before demolishing” commercial properties and multifamily properties with more than five units. The state requires that the property owner provide a form indicating the results of the test. However, according to the audit, “The city does not appear to have a process to verify the form was completed by a qualified person as required by state law.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends lead abatement for homes built before 1978 that are being fully demolished. EPA also requires lead abatement for partial demolitions, according to the audit.

“About 80 percent of the structures in the audit sample were built before 1978. However, the city does not appear to consider whether lead may be present when reviewing demolition permit applications,” the audit says.

Andrew Keegan, who led the audit, noted that in 2008 the city approved about 600 demolition permits. That number fell during the recession, but since 2010 demolition permits have increased about 13 percent per year, according to the audit. During the fiscal years 2015 and 2016, the city approved about 1,700 demolition permits – and 77 percent of those were for residential single-family homes.

Keegan said that during 2015 and 2016 the city approved about 90 percent of demolition applications on the same day they were received. Although city regulations allow people to appeal demolition permits, appeals are made more difficult by the fact that the permits are issued so quickly and in most cases there is no notice.

According to the audit, Development Services staff is looking at the costs associated with sending notifications to people who live within 200 feet of a demolition. The department does maintain a website that allows users to search for demolition permits by date or address.

District 9, followed by Districts 10 and 3, had the most demolitions in 2015 and 2016, auditors reported.

The audit also revealed that the city does not require that contractors who perform demolitions have any kind of training or qualifications. The audit states, “Demolitions performed by unqualified parties increase the chance of an improper or unsafe demolition. Although the permit application has a section to identify the demolition contractor, this information was not included in 25 percent” of the applications auditors reviewed.

“Also, even if the applicant listed a contractor, it does not appear that anyone from the city verifies this information. Although there is no state license requirement for demolition contractors, San Antonio requires a city license,” the audit says.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo has expressed alarm over the large number of demolitions of homes, particularly in her Central Austin District 9. She expressed concern during Tuesday’s meeting about unlicensed contractors.

Tovo said she is interested in exploring a city ordinance that would require licensing for demolition contractors. She said she is also worried about the fact that the city does not require a lead assessment for buildings being demolished.

Single-family residential demolitions do not require an asbestos abatement. In response to questions from Tovo, José Roig, city building official, said the city is concerned about running afoul of state law if they tried to enact some kind of abatement requirement for single-family buildings.

Property owners must contact Austin Energy and Austin Water Utility during the demolition process to ensure that the city’s infrastructure is not damaged during demolition. Austin Energy staff told auditors that it is important to stop electric service during the demolition because live electrical equipment creates a safety risk. Austin Water said it is important that it knows about demolitions because of the need to protect its infrastructure and to install newer, more accurate meters during the process.

In addition, if demolition activity will affect trees on the property, the owner is required to submit a Tree Ordinance Review Application prior to the demolition. The audit reports that the city arborist reviewed “23 applications and identified 13 properties that appeared to have trees requiring protection. Of the 13, the City Arborist found that only 7 had evidence of a tree review,” including two that were submitted after the demolition occurred and another that was never approved.

Auditors also found that although the city requires an inspection after a demolition is completed, the inspection frequently takes place after the new building has been constructed.

Development Services handles permits for residential properties and the Historic Preservation Office in the Planning and Zoning Department handles permits for commercial property. If a residential property is more than 40 years old it is routinely referred to the historic office to determine whether it should be considered for historic designation. The division of labor between the two offices is the result of a reorganization that split the departments in two.

Auditors recommended that the Development Services director hold meetings with stakeholders, including property owners, tenants, neighborhood and historic landmark groups, as well as building and demolition contractors, people in real estate and city staff from the affected departments.

In addition, auditors recommended that adequate and appropriate notice be given to interested parties when a demolition permit has been issued.

Development Services Director Rodney Gonzales and Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey said they concurred with the audit’s recommendations. Guernsey said even before the audit he had been working with Development Services to move approval of commercial demolition permits out of his department and into Development Services.

According to Gonzales, his department will have a proposal for redesigning the process by June 2018.

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Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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