County permit, inspection services remain available despite pandemic closures

Amid the closures of all nonessential businesses in Maryland as of March 23 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one notable exception is the construction industry, which — unlike several other states and large metropolitan jurisdictions around the country — has been allowed to continue to operate in the state.

However, construction projects can’t proceed without plan review, permitting, and inspection services from local jurisdictions. Despite the closure of the Charles County Government building to the public and the shift to telework in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, the county’s Planning and Growth Management Department is continuing to provide those services so that residential and commercial projects can continue, helping to reduce layoffs and furloughs of construction workers.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]VanGO transit services still running, but ridership dips to 60%

Because it is considered an essential service, Charles County’s public transit system, VanGO, is continuing to run buses along all its routes during the COVID-19 pandemic, with drivers and maintenance personnel taking measures to avoid transmitting or catching the virus to passengers and coworkers.

Jeffry Barnett, Charles County’s transit chief, said that average weekday ridership has dropped to about 60% of normal, but that’s actually working to everyone’s advantage because the number of passengers on each bus is limited to nine so that, counting the driver, the number of people in the bus does not exceed 10 in according with Gov. Larry Hogan’s directives for public spaces.

“The paratransit service has leveled off at about an average of a 50% reduction of what we normally see,” Barnett said. “The lion’s share of the [paratransit] transportation we’re providing is door-to-door service to dialysis centers.”

MV Transportation, which operates VanGO, is maintaining full staffing of the buses and the operations and maintenance facility, and carefully monitoring the work spaces and employee health.

“We’ve switched to a hospital-grade germicide,” Barnett said. “The buses are cleaned every time they return to the yard … and they’ve been providing rubber gloves if the drivers choose to use them. They don’t have masks, but if any drivers choose to use masks, that’s approved as long as it doesn’t interfere with vision. They’re also encouraging drivers to wash their hands frequently and do all the things that everybody else is doing.”

Barnett said that he is hopeful the county will be able to obtain federal economic stimulus money to help recoup some of the lost rider revenue.[/su_pullquote]

“I think in some cases people are assuming we’re not working,” PGM director Deborah Carpenter told TLR in a recent interview — conducted, appropriately for the times, by phone. “As long as the contractors are working, we are working.”

Carpenter said that in the run-up to the mandated closures, PGM staff began preparing to provide continuity of operations through telework and reduced staffing and ensured that people had the technological resources they needed to work from home. The county’s self-service portal is still available for online submissions, project tracking, and payments, and is the preferred method of submittal. Though the county government building in La Plata is closed to the public, PGM has set up a drop-off box in the building’s atrium to allow people to drop off paper plans.

PGM rolled out the online self-service portal in late 2018. County residents and developers are able to use it to apply for permits, monitor the status of their projects, and make payments through a single interface. The county also uses the system to share project plans electronically with inspectors and contractors, thereby reducing the amount of time required to review and approve a project — which had long been a major complaint of developers working in the county.

“The only thing that we’re doing differently at this time is that due to … social distancing, we’re not having nuisance board hearings,” said Ray Shumaker, the county’s chief of permits and inspection services. “We are still doing investigations, and we are doing our part in informing the party that there was a violation as to what needs to be done to correct it.”

“Inspection staff are in the field in full force,” Shumaker said. “They’re still performing inspections, they’re just making sure that they follow all guidance from the federal government” to avoid contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus while they work.

PGM staff are also continuing to work on proposed zoning text amendments that many people in the county have been keeping their eyes on, such as the Maryland Airport rezoning and the long-discussed overhaul of the county’s zoning ordinance. In fact, the steps taken to minimize exposure to the virus is proving to be beneficial in that regard.

“For the most part, we’re actually seeing that folks are able to pick up research that they’ve been working on, given that they’re not spending as much time in meetings or dealing with … customers,” said county planning director Jason Groth. “Before everybody left to work from home, the decision was that everybody should take their notes and their documents that they’re working on with them because they could potentially have time to work on them further. And that has been happening.”

“The one, I guess you could say, benefit of this situation has been that because of less time being distracted by meetings and in-person activity, we’re actually having more time to do research and edit the documents we want to bring before the planning [commission],” Groth said. “We’re still early on into this, but I can tell you that [the planning staff] have had the ability to spend more time on these documents than they would have if they were in the office.”

Carpenter agreed with Groth that this unexpected outcome could have a beneficial impact on the way PGM operates in the future.

“I think a lesson learned from this [is that] one of the things that we’re constantly doing around here is going from one meeting to another, and having just a little bit of time to … work this way is actually beneficial for pushing big projects forward that might have been stagnant otherwise.”

Jessica Andritz, PGM’s acting deputy director, said that she has been reaching out to local businesses that have projects under review to let them know that county planning staff is still open for business and working on them.

“I have been reaching out to business owners and folks that I know have complicated plans and projects in review, just to reach out to them one-on-one so that they feel connected to county government,” Andritz said. “We [also] continue to partner with the Economic Development Department to assist them with some of their research and priority projects.”

Carpenter said that her department is also available to work with residents who are considering doing some home improvements during the enforced downtime.

“People are at home, and it’s a great opportunity to do some home projects,” Carpenter said. “Permits and inspections are are still needed and … we’re still making sure that everything goes through. What I’ve been hearing is people [saying], ‘Oh, I’m not going to be able to get my permit.’ And I’m able to say, ‘Well, yeah, you are.’ We’re going to be right on top of that.”