In an effort to streamline North Carolina’s cumbersome and often inconsistent plan review process, Rep. Jeff Zenger, R-Forsyth, has sponsored a bill that promises to bring much-needed reforms to the state’s construction and development industry. With 28 years of experience as a private sector builder and developer, Zenger understands the frustrations and inefficiencies that have long plagued this critical aspect of development. The bill, set to go live on July 1, aims to standardize and expedite the plan review process, providing significant benefits to builders, developers, and ultimately, the citizens of North Carolina.

The Current State of Plan Review
North Carolina currently has 210 inspection departments, each operating with its own set of procedures and timelines. This fragmented system has led to a wide variance in permit turnaround times, with some agencies issuing permits within days while others take up to six months. Commercial plans, which require an engineer’s seal on every page, are particularly burdensome. These engineers bear full liability, ensuring rigorous scrutiny of plans. However, the individuals reviewing these plans are not engineers and hold no financial or legal liability, often leading to numerous back-and-forth exchanges that delay projects and inflate costs.

This lack of efficiency not only hampers project timelines but also disrupts the ordering of materials and planning for business openings. The uncertainty surrounding permit approvals creates a challenging environment for developers, who must navigate these obstacles while managing tight budgets and schedules. Zenger has observed these struggles across the state, prompting him to take legislative action.

Key Provisions of the Reform Bill
The bill introduced by Representative Zenger sets a 45-day deadline for plan review departments to review plans and issue permits. This standardization is a significant step toward reducing the unpredictability that developers currently face. Additionally, the bill permits the use of third-party inspections, which can expedite the review process and help meet the 45-day requirement. By incorporating third-party inspections, the bill aims to foster better communication and collaboration between developers and inspection departments, leading to more efficient and accurate reviews.

One of the most notable aspects of the bill is the provision for foundational permits. Under the new system, developers can begin foundational work while the full plan review is still in progress. This change addresses a major pain point for developers, who often face costly delays waiting for full permit approvals. By allowing foundational work to commence earlier, projects can progress more smoothly, reducing downtime and associated expenses.

Broad Support and Opposition
The reform bill has garnered support from several key industry groups, including the North Carolina Apartment Association, North Carolina Homebuilders Association, National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, and Triad Real Estate Building Industry Coalition. These advocates recognize the potential for significant cost savings and increased efficiency that the bill promises.

On the other hand, the NC League of Municipalities has opposed the bill, primarily due to concerns about losing control and authority over the plan review process. This opposition underscores a common tension between state-level reforms and local autonomy. However, it is crucial to balance local control with the need for a standardized and efficient system that benefits the broader development community and the state’s economy.

Levelling the Playing Field
One of the most compelling arguments for the bill is its potential to democratize the plan review process. Currently, large publicly traded companies like Toyota, Apple, and Nucor can negotiate with counties for independent plan reviews, bypassing the traditional process that smaller developers must navigate. The reform bill would extend similar efficiencies to all developers, ensuring a fairer and more equitable system. By providing all developers with access to expedited and consistent plan reviews, the bill helps level the playing field and promotes a more competitive and dynamic development environment.

Impact on Housing and Development
In addition to streamlining the plan review process, the bill includes provisions aimed at addressing North Carolina’s housing shortage. By reclassifying duplexes, triplexes, and quadriplexes under residential rather than commercial building codes, the bill seeks to boost housing inventory during a period of unprecedented demand. This reclassification simplifies the development process for these types of properties, encouraging more construction and contributing to increased housing availability.

The bill also establishes two separate building councils—one focused on residential and the other on commercial developments. This division allows for more specialized and effective oversight, ensuring that the unique needs of each sector are adequately addressed.

Addressing Broader Issues
Beyond the technical aspects of plan review, the bill also touches on broader issues affecting the housing market. Zenger notes that public resistance to high-density and affordable housing developments, often referred to as NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), plays a significant role in limiting housing options and driving up prices. By implementing common-sense reforms and reducing regulatory burdens, the bill aims to create a more favorable environment for affordable housing development.

Burdensome regulations at both the local and state levels are a primary driver of higher housing costs and limited affordable options. By streamlining the plan review process and addressing these regulatory challenges, the bill represents a crucial step toward making housing more accessible and affordable for North Carolina residents.

Representative Jeff Zenger’s reform bill is a forward-thinking approach to modernizing North Carolina’s plan review process. By standardizing review timelines, incorporating third-party inspections, and allowing foundational permits, the bill addresses long-standing inefficiencies that have hindered development. The support from key industry groups underscores the bill’s potential to significantly benefit the building community, while opposition from the NC League of Municipalities highlights the balance that must be struck between state-level reforms and local control.

Ultimately, the bill aims to level the playing field for developers of all sizes, promote fairer and more efficient development practices, and address critical housing shortages. As the bill goes live on July 1, it represents a positive step toward a more dynamic and equitable development environment in North Carolina, promising benefits that extend far beyond the construction industry to the broader economy and the citizens of the state.