County developer program OK'd despite warnings

Developers could skip final review if their engineers accept liability

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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A pilot program that aims to save developers money was approved Tuesday by Clark County commissioners, even after they heard from engineers who said they would not recommend it to developers.

Under the developer certification program, developers could opt out of having county staff conduct a final engineering review.

That would save, for example, $4,845 for a 20-lot subdivision.

However, liability would be put on the developer's engineers.

Jerry Olson of Olson Engineering said the program may leave solo practitioners or small companies unable to bid for projects as they often can't afford $1 million in general liability insurance and $1 million in errors and admissions insurance that will be required. The county required the insurance so taxpayers won't be on the hook for shoddy work.

Olson also said he relies on the county's final engineering review, which happens before construction starts, because private engineers aren't as well-versed in the details of state and county codes.

Thomas Dennis and Greg Jellison of HDJ Design Group shared Olson's concerns.

Jellison, who serves on the county's Development and Engineering Advisory Board -- which opposed the program -- said there have been a lot of improvements at the county regarding the review process. He said county engineers have done much better at only making changes to plans to comply with codes, and not suggesting changes based on personal preference.

Commissioner Steve Stuart emphasized the program, which was initiated by commissioners, was optional.

Stuart asked Jellison what he would do if a developer wanted to use the pilot certification program.

"We'd probably have a long discussion," Jellison said. He said he would not recommend it.

The county won't have an approved list of engineers; any engineer licensed in the state of Washington who carries the appropriate insurance can participate. Eligible projects include short plats, subdivisions and site plans. The county would still do a construction inspection and make sure everything was in order before issuing a final occupancy permit.

Commissioner Tom Mielke said he respected the engineers' comments, but, like Stuart, stressed that it's just an option.

Even if developers choose the option, the county will still have to do a basic review of stormwater plans, said Pete Capell, director of Clark County Public Works. He explained that since the county is under a federal injunction to follow state guidelines for handling

polluted runoff, the county can't delegate that responsibility to the developer.

Stuart, Mielke and Commissioner Marc Boldt approved the pilot project.

The county has been trying to streamline the permitting process and make it less expensive. The county has retooled its codes and fees, started a 60-day expedited review pilot project and currently has a fee holiday on certain projects.

"Everything we're doing is moving toward 'better, faster, cheaper,'" Stuart said.

Stuart said the county will give the program a year.

"We may end up coming back and saying there's a better way to do this, and that's fine."

If developers opt in, county employees who do final engineering reviews will be reassigned to Public Works' capital projects.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.