Pandemic home improvements lead to permit backlog in Norwalk –

NORWALK — With the coronavirus pandemic forcing residents statewide to remain largely at home for the last 14 months, Norwalkers have taken to home improvements and additions, leaving the city’s Planning and Zoning Department with a backlog of permit requests and the need to hire more people to handle the influx.

The department did not specify how large its backlog is, but said in recent months it has received about 15 new permit requests per day, Planning & Zoning Director Steve Kleppin wrote in a funds request to the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

“We are seeing an unprecedented amount of permits come in,” Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Vonashek said at Monday’s meeting. “I think people who have been home for the last year have been deciding to do a little bit of additional work to their homes this summer, and we continue to see a large amount of development happening as well.”

This daily stream of permits is significant enough that the department requested the transfer of about $15,000 from its available budget to hire part-time workers and pay staff overtime to process them.

Planning and Zoning provide staffers for the Zoning, Planning, Conservation, Harbor Management and Bike Walk Commission as well as the Zoning Board of Appeals and may soon provide for the Historical Commission, Kleppin said.

“While we have been able to maintain increase staffing, we have experienced a knowledge gap that presented some short-term challenges as new staff got brought up to speed,” Kleppin wrote. “To ease some of the backlog, staff is working some additional hours per week to catch up.”

In the BET meeting, the department requested $5,000 to pay overtime for department members spending extra hours working on permits, $4,000 to hire a temporary administrative assistant and $7,000 to pay part-time salaries, according to the request documents.

The $5,000 will pay workers attending evening Zoom meetings or filling permits requests after work hours. The temporary administrative assistant will keep up with data entry and filing the permits while the part-time salaries will go toward paying the department’s former senior planner as a new senior planning is adjusting to the role, according to the documents.

“From a planning and zoning standpoint, we are experiencing such a huge number of permits that are coming in and we have a little bit of a backlog,” Vonashek said. “We’ve been monitoring that for a number of weeks, that backlog has continued to increase.”

The extra hands will work for the planning and zoning and building and code departments, she said.

In 2020 the cost of construction the city saw was $296.3 million, and in 2021 the city is expected to hit $319.3 million, Vonashek said.

To lessen the backlog, the department has asked some staff to stay late at the office or bring home permit requests to be completed in the evening or on the weekends, Vonashek said.

In 2020, 322 businesses were registered in the city, and for 2021 the city is slated to get 350 new businesses, Vonashek said.

Multiple large projects are in the final stages, including Washington Village, Harborside on Water Street and 1 Chestnut, a mixed-use residential building, Vonashek said.

The goal in transferring the funds and hiring part-time and temporary workers is to avoid having the permit backlog persist beyond the current fiscal year, which ends in June, while the administrative assistant would remain for the fiscal year.

“We’re looking to be able to transfer some of those funds to not only work through the permit backlog, but so we will be flushed when we start the fiscal year in June,” she said.