An applicant for a Certificate of Occupancy comes in to the office ready to open their business only to find the business type is not allowed based on zoning regulations; or the building must be altered to add additional means of egress or more toilet facilities; or that the building must now be equipped with a fire suppression system. Then they inform you they have already signed a long-term lease or worse, they have purchased the building. How often do building divisions encounter this disheartening scenario?
I know we are always looking for ways to reach out to our customers and provide education and information regarding our processes and code requirements. The City of Abilene has started a program that you should consider if you don’t already have something similar in your city.
The City of Abilene Administration and our local Small Business Development Administration organized a pilot program in an effort to build relationships and further educate small business owners and developers on city policies and procedures. The initial meeting was meant to introduce the attendees to various city staff involved in all areas of city government. The panel was made up of a representative of city administration, the director of planning and development service, environmental health manager, planning manager, code enforcement manager, the assistant fire marshal, the police chief, and the building official (me). Staff introduced themselves and gave a brief outline of their area of responsibility and information regarding processes. The panel placed an emphasis on subjects that would be of particular importance to small business owners.
After introductions the panel took questions from the attendees. I know what you’re thinking and yes, there were some questions that suggested a fear or even dislike of any city official and most city rules and ordinances. That, unfortunately, is inevitable, but frankly is exactly why an effort like this should be undertaken. A good percentage of this distrust comes from hearsay information and if we don’t hear it and have an opportunity to dispel or at least give a rational explanation for it, who will? The majority of the questions were very positive. The attendees had a true desire to understand the development and permitting process and wanted to learn how best to comply. This was refreshing.
The City of Abilene’s mission statement is this, “We work together to build a community of the highest quality for present and future generations.” We can’t prevent every bad issue but when we take advantage of opportunities to work together and educate the aspiring small business owners we take a big step towards this goal. I know we all provide brochures and information in our front offices as well as our websites, and that is something we should be doing because it does meet customer needs most of the time. But I think we do our customers and ourselves a disservice if we overlook the benefits of a face-to-face interaction outside a municipal office setting.
If all works right, it is a win-win. The small business owner has the knowledge and tools to find an appropriate building or site and have all the necessary plans and documents needed to make the permitting process run smoothly. The win for staff is an easier, less confrontational process.
By David Sartor, CBO, City of Abilene
BOAT Board of Directors