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Amherst aims for friendlier business permit process

  • Amherst Inspector David Waskiewicz is at the construction site at 79 South Pleasant St. in Amherst where a building is being renovated to house administrative offices for Amherst College and the Five Colleges Center for Study of World Languages. Town officials say inspections are done every day and are usually available on request.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Amherst Inspector David Waskiewicz is at the construction site at 79 South Pleasant St. in Amherst where a building is being renovated to house administrative offices for Amherst College and the Five Colleges Center for Study of World Languages. Town officials say inspections are done every day and are usually available on request.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Building Commissioner Rob Morra, who has been on the job for a year, is seeking to smooth the process for obtaining permits and inspections for building projects in town.<br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Amherst Building Commissioner Rob Morra, who has been on the job for a year, is seeking to smooth the process for obtaining permits and inspections for building projects in town.
    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Building Commissioner Rob Morra, who has been on the job for a year, is seeking to smooth the process for obtaining permits and inspections for building projects in town.<br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Amherst Building Commissioner Rob Morra, who has been on the job for a year, is seeking to smooth the process for obtaining permits and inspections for building projects in town.
    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Inspector David Waskiewicz checks the size of the handicap accessible parking spots behind Bank of America in Amherst.<br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Amherst Inspector David Waskiewicz checks the size of the handicap accessible parking spots behind Bank of America in Amherst.
    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Inspector David Waskiewicz is at the construction site at 79 South Pleasant St. in Amherst where a building is being renovated to house administrative offices for Amherst College and the Five Colleges Center for Study of World Languages. Town officials say inspections are done every day and are usually available on request.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Amherst Building Commissioner Rob Morra, who has been on the job for a year, is seeking to smooth the process for obtaining permits and inspections for building projects in town.<br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Amherst Building Commissioner Rob Morra, who has been on the job for a year, is seeking to smooth the process for obtaining permits and inspections for building projects in town.<br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Amherst Inspector David Waskiewicz checks the size of the handicap accessible parking spots behind Bank of America in Amherst.<br/>SARAH CROSBY

While they were aware of the challenges they would face in converting a former retail space into the Glazed Doughnut Shop, they proceeded, starting by consulting with Building Commissioner Robert Morra, scheduling a site visit by building, fire and health inspectors, gathering all the municipal forms they’d need and mapping their work plan before hiring a contractor and submitting management plans.

Several months later, they opened for business. Keren Rhodes praises Morra and his staff for their assistance.

“They were fantastic. They really know what they’re doing and they walked us through the process,” she said.

“That was our experience, despite everyone warning us about how difficult Amherst is to deal with,” she added.

Deserved or not, Amherst has a reputation as a tough place to start a business or get a building project going. Changing this perception is one of the tasks for Morra, who’s been on the job a year, following the retirement of Bonnie Weeks.

“The primary objectives upon his hire were to provide timely and consistent permit review and approvals,” said Town Manager John Musante.

Seeking efficiency

Morra, he said, has taken a “systems approach” to doing that, evaluating everything from workday organization and how administrative staff is used to setting benchmarks for a turnaround time for building permits.

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said town officials are aware of the concerns from some people who work on commercial projects in Amherst.

“We do need to clarify and articulate about how people approach the town,” Ziomek said. “That’s something as a functional area we’re going to take a look at.”

Ziomek said Morra’s approach has been to identify where new policies and procedures are needed. “We’re trying to start with new ideas and a fresh approach to inspection services,” Ziomek said.

When Morra arrived on the job to oversee a department with two local inspectors and one code enforcement officer, he set about making three major changes: overhauling the structure of inspection services, revising the permitting process and altering how enforcement actions are taken and reported.

Morra said the regular inspections schedule has been improved with daily inspections done in either the morning or afternoon.

He also geographically split the town so inspectors can move easily from site to site and spend more time, if needed, on active projects.

In addition, he established regular office hours so builders and contractors can come in for visits to seek permits and plan reviews.

“We can do this in a 7-to-10-day period, which is much shorter” than it used to be, Morra said.

With the permitting process, Morra has emphasized pre-meetings between his staff and the applicant and architect, if one is involved.

Morra said this can end up saving time, citing Amherst Laser and Skin Care, which moved from a professional building to the site of the former Silverscape Design store. A site plan waiver was granted because there was no change in use to the building and traffic and parking on site was sufficient.

Ziomek said it was important to create a process that is consistent and predictable.

“The whole idea here is to gain efficiency and serve the applicant better,” Ziomek said. “Consistency is something we want in the building commissioner.”

A ways to go

Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tony Maroulis said despite Morra’s efforts, he is hearing from many businesses that the town still acts more quickly when residential issues come up than when businesses approach officials.

He said he still gets feedback from those who feel unfairly targeted by inspections, a criticism Morra rejects. “There really isn’t any reason inspection services would delay a project,” he said.

Alex Krogh-Grabbe, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said he also gets periodic feedback from those who believe inspections and permitting still can be improved.

Krogh-Grabbe said there are already barriers to getting businesses established in downtown, including the lack of population density to support businesses and limited parking, and anything to minimize challenges during the inspection process is helpful.

“We need to make sure to make it easier to bring to Amherst what we need,” Krogh-Grabbe said.

Morra said that good design work and the early involvement of an architect help the process. “If it’s a good, quality application, it moves rapidly,” he said.

Morra said some timing issues are out of his hands. If a special permit is needed, the applicant is required to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals, which can cause delay.

“We don’t have any influence on how long it takes to get through the zoning process,” Morra said.

Ziomek said he believes the town’s reputation comes largely from the process dictated by the town’s zoning.

“The reality is we have an engaged citizenry and there are a number of steps and processes to go through,” Ziomek said.

Change noted

John Kuhn, a principal at Kuhn-Riddle Architects, said Morra has speeded up the building permit process, responds to questions, sets up meetings in a timely way and has given other inspectors more responsibility rather than micromanaging their work.

“In terms of Rob, he has brought some real positive changes to inspection services,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn said Morra is also knowledgeable about the code and from his standpoint that is a big plus.

Kuhn is familiar with many of the problems entrenched in Amherst’s zoning bylaw, which is difficult to change because a two-thirds majority vote from Town Meeting is needed to do it.

Town Hall recognizes the need to make changes, he said, but they will be incremental.

In fact, Kuhn said, Amherst is not much different from other cities and towns its size.

Keren and Nick Rhodes agree, citing their experiences dealing with municipal officials in Holyoke, as well as Manchester and Waterbury, Conn., in opening up mall-based doughnut shops.

“In the grand scheme of things of the places we’ve worked with, Amherst is really not that bad,” Rhodes said.

Embracing technology

Morra is also credited with embracing technology, with inspectors taking tablet computers to the field to snap photographs and collect other information and taking MUNIS, the computer system used internally, to the next level. He is working with information technology staff to digitize more of the records, scanning historical documents and putting all zoning files into the system. There is also more interdepartmental sharing among building, health, fire and planning.

Morra also supervises the code enforcement that began last June with the hiring of Jon Thompson, who has convened meetings with landlords and tenants. A complaint response and tracking system is housed in the office, which has been posting data since June. From then until the end of the year, 112 complaints had been logged, with 109 of these brought into compliance.

Musante said a lack of complaints indicates the commissioner is doing a good job.

“The silence is deafening,” Musante said. “We’re getting fewer people asking to problem-solve. We’ve had consistently positive feedback about speed and clarity.”

Musante said he hopes all of this will lead to a change in the town’s reputation.

“We’re using the Amherst approach,” Musante said. “That is fair, timely and consistent.”

Legacy Comments1

Despite what may be reported in this article, I deplore the total opposite. As one who works with the building department in the town of Amherst I find Morra to be more of a headache than the previous building commisioner. Further Amherst will have a long long way to go to look business friendly. If Morra is so optimistic about Amherst why does he not live here like all the other building inspectors. I call this hypocritical. Amherst under Morra gets an "F".

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