When Panera Bread came to Palm Coast in April 2012, it came with an announcement: Another bakery would open in the city within two years of the first.
That plan has since been abandoned. Eryn Catter, director of public relations and sales for Panera Bread, said in an email that the company has no additional location planned for the Palm Coast area.
Building the first Panera Bread bakery in Palm Coast was a lengthy and complicated process, said Josh Jeppesen, a project manager for Schmid Construction, the company that headed the restaurant’s vertical construction.
The first Panera project took three years to complete, Jeppesen said. Two and a half of those years were spent getting the restaurant out of planning and development. This is the longest it has ever taken Jeppesen to finish a Panera restaurant, he said. And he has built 10 of the restaurants in the last year and a half throughout central Florida,
Many say Palm Coast is a difficult place to build because of inefficient inspection and permitting processes that stretch the length of builds and escalate building fees. Some contractors say it’s so bad that they won’t work within the city ever again.
The origin of this negative perception, said Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, is difficult to trace or correct. He seldom hears concrete examples of how the city is being difficult, but he frequently hears complaints, he said.
“We hear about this all the time,” Netts said. “The problem is you’re dealing with innuendo and third-party concerns. Somebody needs to come to me and tell me where the city’s falling short, but nobody’s done that.”
Just the facts
If you ask Charlie Faulkner whether Palm Coast has a negative reputation as a place to build, he gives a quick answer: “I can think of four contractors off the top of my head who’ve told me in the last two years they won’t do business in the city of Palm Coast ever again because their experiences in interfacing with (the city) have been that frustrating.”
Faulkner, who currently does freelance consulting with Faulkner & Associates, is the former senior vice president of Palm Coast Holdings, the company that developed Town Center in Palm Coast.
He has watched the area’s municipalities since the early 1990s and says Flagler County and, since it was incorporated in 2000, Palm Coast, become more efficient managers of their building departments. Things are improving from the state they were in a decade ago, he said.
But there are still problems. The biggest: communication between inspectors, city officials and contractors.
Another: site work. In 2010, Palm Coast laid off staff and reorganized its departments because of budget cuts, when the city was under pressure to keep taxes low. Part of that process included eliminatiing 11 inspectors, one plans examiner, two zoning technicians and three development technicians. This reduced the number of inspectors onsite and started an inspection system in which project managers can call in requests for inspections and, within 24 hours, will have an inspector onsite.
This brought a bigger impact to site inspections than to the actual construction of houses.
“When it comes to site work,” said Palm Coast City Councilman Jason DeLorenzo, “you might put in a section of pipe and it has to be inspected and covered, and then the next section has to be inspected and covered, and so on.
“Calling in and asking for an inspection doesn’t really work too well with that process, because (site work) is something where you’re moving forward constantly,” said DeLorenzo, who is also the government affairs director for the Flagler Home Builders Association.
Waiting for inspections can slow the process down because the process of something like laying pipes is a fluid process. Having a single inspector assigned to each project who checked in daily could rectify this problem, DeLorenzo said.
Faulkner said he has seen the site-work stage of projects bring a page and a half of entries for inspections — each of which comes with a $40 fee. Palm Coast is an expensive place to do business, he said, because of inspections and because of impact fees. Flagler County passed a moratorium on its impact fees last year, but Palm Coast’s are still in place.
Faulkner referenced a client who purchased land and was ready to move forward with a commercial construction project until he realized how high the impact fees were. That client has built throughout the state without such fees, and simply decided not to build, Faulkner said. That was three years ago. The site is still empty.
These things might not be directly hurting Palm Coast’s economic development, but they aren’t helping it, either, Faulkner said.
That’s why DeLorenzo, along with the HBA, is working with the Palm Coast Business Assistance Center to explore ways to improve the construction process in Palm Coast. The two groups have so far had one meeting and anticipate more, during which a plan will be formed.
Aside from site work, other problems DeLorenzo identified included confusion surrounding the rules for paint colors, the process of working with the utility department in plan development, and issues with revisions on the field.
If a customer were to walk through a house in the process of being completed and ask that a small change be made — such as the addition of an outlet — the plan must be updated and a new inspection must be administered and passed, including the $40 fee tied to it.
This also can slow the construction process, DeLorenzo said.
“Ultimately, we’re dealing with customers,” he said. “We’re trying to do what they want and give them a service.”
As for the contractors who won’t work in Palm Coast anymore, one of them, Peter Lyden, is still doing his business elsewhere in Flagler County.
After spending some frustrating time working within the city with Del Electric Inc., Lyden one day got the call that disenchanted him from working with the city for good. A client called and said he’d been informed of a code violation for an air conditioning unit Lyden had done electrical work on.
The city said he’d done the work without a permit, even though Lyden had failed an inspection and subsequently passed it, he said. Permits allow for inspections, he said, adding that he thought the issue came from a lapse in communication or organization.
Lyden had to appear before the Florida Licensing Board and pay $160 to rectify the situation, which he said didn’t need repairing in the first place. At that time, he decided to keep his business out of Palm Coast.
“You get fed up after a while,” Lyden said, adding that the biggest issue he saw was in communication between the city and contractors. “They’re treating us like we’re enemies, and all we’re trying to do is do a job. You feel like a third-class citizen in their offices.”
Open for discussion
To Nestor Abreu, director of community development for Palm Coast, criticisms of the city’s building department are unfounded.
“The whole permitting process is (in place) to ensure compliance with code, and for the general public’s safety,” Abreu said. “It involves many hands. Construction even of small projects is, by its nature, complicated.”
The city’s building department is meeting its benchmark goals for permitting and inspections, Abreu said. According to the department’s December performance report, the city has provided plan reviews within 15 days for commercial projects and processed quick review permits within 24 hours — with 100% consistency.
“It’s very easy for contractors to blame the city when it’s actually their problem,” Netts said. “Our building code is a state building code. We don’t have anything in our code that isn’t anywhere else. The fact that we make people adhere to it, well, if that’s not business-friendly, then so be it.”
Still, the complaints exist, Netts said. His solution: Anyone with a problem should come to him or to City Council with their concerns. Netts said he intends to investigate any such complaints.
And among most involved in the construction industry, a common theme emerges: the need for strong communication between all involved parties.
“When it comes to economic development, the companies that are considering coming to your community are here well before you know it,” DeLorenzo said. “They’re snooping around. They’re listening, reading the paper, asking questions. Having a good reputation is very important.”
Currently 7 Responses
- Wow investigative journalism at its best. Lol
Fact check please!!
- NO SOUP FOR YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- WHERE DOES IT SAY PANERA IS NOT COMING BSCAUSE OF Government? I DONT SEE THAT. MY BUILDER DID NOT LIKE THE INSPECTORS EITHER BUT IM GLAD THEY WERE HARD ASS BECAUSE I GOT A HOUSE BUILT THE WAY IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE. I WILL LIVE WITH THIS TILL I DIE. MU BUILDER MOVES ON TO THE NEXT GUY. I DONT CARE IF HE LIKED ME EITHER.
- I have some experience with Palm Coast's management. It has to do with the swale drainage, and mine is finally good. But it was not easy to get it that way. When I moved here in 2004 my house had a mini swamp in front of it. Water that never went away, had minnows and leeches in it, and was impossible to mow. I called City Hall, and was asked if it dried up within 3 days of a rain. "No, it has minnows and leeches living in it, and it is impossible to mow" was my answer. I like minnows. I also like my yard to look good, and I do not care for leeches. Then councilman John Netts returned my phone call. He told me that he would be on my street at a certain time in the morning, so I told him I would be home, and he had my address. Well, at about the agreed upon time, I saw a car coming down my street. The car stopped a couple of houses away from mine, and a guy got out and looked around. Then the guy drove past me, a couple of houses down the street in the other direction. They guy got out again, looked around and drove away, without acknowledging my presence on my driveway next to the leech farm in my yard. Turns out it was Mr. Netts. I spoke to him on the phone again, and he told me the city was going to install a drainage system for residents like me. After several weeks, the city came through and installed a french drain. Things were much better, but the city didn't use enough permeable topsoil. I added some at my own expense. Now my swale is perfect - it swoops down just enough to hold some rain water, no more aquatic plants or critters, and I keep it mowed. Then the city decided to dig out what they installed, to put it back like it was, a decision that I disagreed with adamantly. I put in a call to (by now mayor) Mr. Netts, and calls to the new councilman and the city manager. Mr. Netts never bothered to call me, but many representatives of the city did show up, as did several of my neighbors that I rallied. I was accused of installing the french drain myself. I did not - the city did it. I was angry. The overall drainage in Palm Coast is bad - even though the crown of my road is about 10 feet above the water table, the ground is not permeable enough to allow rain water to seep through. So why doesn't the city maintain the ditches in front of the the wooded lots, where they do mow - and leave the homeowners' land alone? And if they do have to dig up property in the easement, they should dig out the muck/clay that the water can't seep through, and simply replace it with permeable soil. This would allow rain water to move to the water table, and allow residents to mow their lawns. When it comes to dealing with City Hall, all I can say is Mr. Netts seems to be protective, publicly, over the municipal employees. I sure hope, like any good parent, he chastises them in private and encourages them to develop a helpful attitude. That would improve Palm Coast immensely, because that helpful attitude is sorely lacking, and I argue it is a big part of the reason Palm Coast has such a bad reputation.
- It sounds a little arrogant to me. The Mayors reaction to losing construction jobs and business development is “it’s easy for contractors to blame the city when it’s actually their problem”. No!! Mr. Mayor, if the city is losing business because of a perceived problem within the process, it’s your problem. Why don’t you stop passing the buck and actually do something to find out where in the process there is a problem. Rather than saying that we are dealing with “innuendo and third party concerns”. Here is a suggestion; how about you get that over paid City Manager (Jim Landon) to use some type of managerial skills such as Lean Six Sigma to figure out the problem. Ask him if he has even heard of or knows about the concept of Lean Six Sigma, if he has never heard of the practice, that might glowing indication that we need individuals within local government that have a clue. This city will not survive without a growing infrastructure. There are Panera Bread bakeries all across the country and they have a market cap of 4.79 Billion Dollars (that Billion with a “B”), with 16,000 restaurants, and 18,000 employees. That’s almost a quarter of the population of Palm Coast. But it’s their problem with the permitting and construction process here in Palm Coast, not ours. Please!!!!
- Seems to me that if the mayor (and others) are serious about making Palm Coast "Contractor friendly" it is not the responsibilities of the contractors to go to the city with complaints, but the responsibility of the city to go to those people who say that they are having trouble and try to find out why...
- Mayor says he sees no problem. Sure looks like there is a problem if contractors won't work in this town. On the other hand the new Medical Center and the new restaurant next to it went up in no time. Someone has to not be doing something right and the others are. Maybe some of the ones who won't work here need to find out what their secret is.
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