A Change for The Better

More cities offer online permit applications.

People who would never have considered ordering groceries online or having a cheeseburger and fries delivered reconsidered those options when locked down during a worldwide pandemic. Americans are doing a lot of things differently than they did two years ago.

Businesses have had to make similar adjustments, finding ways to provide their products or services when customers were unable or less inclined to make transactions in person.

Although the City of Ankeny began offering online permit filing prior to the pandemic, the program has expanded exponentially as a result of it. According to Ankeny’s Permit Specialist, Kathy Dozer, “We initially started using the web portal in 2019 with a select few contractors who agreed to help us work through any issues before opening it to more applicants.”

The city limited those early online permit applications to just a few trades at first, then added fence permits. The plan was to gradually expand the program as applicants and staff grew comfortable with it. The plan was going well until COVID-19 shut down city offices and transformed more homeowners into remote workers.

Early restrictions, initiated when little was known about the virus, not only limited face-to-face interaction but often placed strict guidelines on surface contact as well.

“Initial COVID protocol required permits to be filed on paper and left in a bin at city offices,” says Dozer. “But they had to remain there, untouched, for a set period of time before being delivered to the Public Services building, where we could process them.”

On top of this extended delay, most trades and contractors were experiencing an unanticipated spike in business. The city was receiving several times more permit filings than normal, and the backlog of unprocessed permits was growing steadily.

“When it became obvious that the pandemic effects weren’t going to be short-term, we knew we had to get the remaining permit applications online as well,” says Dozer.

Fortunately, the learning curve from the initial program in 2019 gave city staff a model to follow. With some trial and error, the team was able to add the majority of the remaining permits to the portal.

The web portal now allows submittals for projects from fences, sheds, garages, swimming pools, and decks to single-family dwellings, townhomes, multifamily dwellings, commercial permits, and more.

In addition to submitting permits, users can access a variety of paperwork related to their projects, such as site plans, Certificate of Occupancy paperwork, and approved plans. They can also track inspection progress, fees, and correspondence related to each permit.

Several other communities around the metro offer similar services. Waukee, for example, has made permits and applications accessible through the city’s main website with links easily accessible for everything from inspection certificates to multifamily housing permits on the same page with pet licenses and block party permits.

With Ankeny’s program, nearly any stage of construction that requires a permit or a city official can be submitted through the portal. There are some limitations.

“Right now, the program limits the number of inspections a user can request via the portal, but we’re working on increasing that as we continue to fine-tune the program,” Dozer says. Aside from that, users simply need to register to access records and submit forms.

Paper and email submittals are still accepted, but Dozer says both contractors and city staff have found the portal process quicker and easier.

Dozer says, “It’s a simple process to set up the first time, and the majority of contractors prefer it once they’ve used it.”

Since expanding the submittal options, Ankeny city staff are processing significantly fewer paper applications. More than 85% of home builders use the web portal. Close to 95% of fence contractors submit permits this way as well. Commercial contractor use continues to rise, although less rapidly than residential.

More cities around the metro are offering similar programs, including Des Moines, Altoona, Urbandale, and Waukee. Others have plans to provide the option in the near future.

“Right now, permits can be emailed or filed on paper,” says Norwalk’s Tony Stravers. “But we’re working on our online system and expect to have it operational in the next 6 to 12 months.”

Scott Clyce of the city of Grimes says that suburb also has plans to provide all digital options for contractors in the future.

As more businesses have embraced digital options, the paperwork side of the construction industry continues moving closer to paperless. Unlike online grocery shopping and burger delivery, the online permit system hasn’t required additional staff. It has actually allowed everyone from contractors to city employees to work more efficiently than before.

That’s a change worth making.