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News / Clark County News

Vancouver excels on permit audit, receiving among highest scores

But processed civil permits slower than land use, building

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 9, 2024, 6:28pm

When it comes to issuing permits, the city of Vancouver received among the highest scores in a recently completed audit by the Washington State Auditor’s Office.

According to an April 2 report, the audit looked at how certain cities and counties complied with state permitting requirements. Current law requires 218 cities and 28 counties to issue civil, building and land use permits within 120 days.

Six cities and counties representing “high-growth areas” of the state were chosen for the audit. Among them were the cities of Vancouver, Bellingham, Richland and Shoreline as well as Kittitas and Snohomish counties.

The audit “spoke directly to the complexities and challenges of processing development permits within the timelines established by the Growth Management Act,” Washington State Auditor Pat McCarthy said in the report.

Of the six jurisdictions reviewed, four governments processed at least 75 percent of land use applications within 120 days, the report said. Key factors that slowed processing times were project complexity, staffing shortages and inefficient processes.

At 96 percent of land use permits processed within 120 days, Vancouver had the highest score for applications submitted between 2019 and 2022.

During that same time period, though, 43 percent of Vancouver’s civil permits (e.g., for a sewer line) were processed within 120 days. Only Snohomish County scored lower with 40 percent.

When it came to processing building permits, Vancouver again scored well. According to the audit, 93 percent of the city’s applications were processed within 120 days. Bellingham and Kittitas County scored 96 percent and Richland scored 97 percent for building permits.

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While the audited jurisdictions often met legal requirements, McCarthy said “actual processing times varied widely due to many factors. These can include the complexity of the development, waiting for applicants to submit corrected or missing information, and too few permitting staff.”

McCarthy also said there were problems with how government jurisdictions handle interruptions to the permitting process.

“As they review a permit application, governments often find they have questions, require revisions or need the applicant to take some other action,” McCarthy said in the report. “All six audited governments specified in their county or city codes that time waiting for the applicant does not count against the 120-day deadline, but only two of them could produce reports to show this time.”

She said local governments could improve their process by setting standard policies for deadline extensions and communicating with applicants.

State law also requires 50 cities and counties to publish annual reports on the timeliness of their permit reviews. This includes Clark, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston and Whatcom counties.

Clark County’s permit reports can be found at https://clark.wa.gov/community-development/permit-center. According to the county data, the average number of days for building permits — from submission of the application to permit issuance — is 41.8 days. The average number of days for development engineering is 86.8 days and land use permits averaged 136.5 days.

Legislation passed during the 2023 session will bring changes to permitting times. The new law sets three different deadlines which depend on whether the permit requires a public notice or hearing. The new deadlines will be: 65 days for permits that do not require public notice; 100 days for permits that require public notice but not a public hearing; 170 days for permits that require a public hearing.

To read the full audit report, go to https://tinyurl.com/mr3zxxch.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.