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Talent adapts to higher demand for building permits

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneReconstruction is underway at a Talent apartment complex.

Applications for single-family residential building permits in Talent have averaged 50 per month so far this year as homeowners rebuild from the Sept. 8 Almeda fire. Last year, Talent’s Community Development Department saw an average of three applications per month.

To meet the demand the city has increased staff in the department, enlisted help from volunteers, asked for help from other governments and put up a large white board to track all applications, in addition to computer tracking. Two retired veteran planners were hired to fill vacancies created from loss of personnel early in the year.

“With the processes, the policies we had before, we weren’t going to be able to keep the pace, so we have undertaken a process improvement cycle … to make that more streamlined,” said Interim City Manager Jamie McLeod-Skinner. “People are understandably anxious. We are trying to make sure that our process is a seamless as possible.”

At the March 17 Talent City Council meeting, interim Planning Director Dick Converse reported that the city had received 11 approved sets of building plans from Jackson County a day earlier and three or four that day. The county reviews and approves building plans for Talent.

“We get (the permits) issued as quickly as we can,” said Converse. Work with the county, which also does building inspections for the city, is going smoothly, he said.

McLeod-Skinner was hired as interim city manager beginning Jan. 1 following the negotiated resignation of Sandra Spelliscy. Community Development Director Zac Moody, who had been in the position since 2013, resigned Jan. 19. In addition, another planner left for a job with the city of Medford, and long-time staffer Colleen Bradley transferred to the Public Works Department.

Converse came out of retirement to help the city. He was previously with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments. Another retired planner, Lois de Benedetti, has been hired part-time by the city.

New employees hired as community development assistants to help the public are Johanna Talley, who has a background in customer service, and Zophia Heck, who has experience with sustainability issues.

“They have just been phenomenal on helping out keeping the public informed. We just didn’t have the staff bandwidth before,” said McLeod-Skinner. Bradley has come back at times to assist with training new personnel.

City Councilor Derek Volkart, a former planning commissioner, is coordinating the volunteer effort to help with the application process. Volunteers come in twice per week to do some basic work. That includes things such as checking that setbacks on plans meet city criteria. The volunteers’ work is overseen by professional planners.

“We have check lists, and the people are really clear on what they are doing and not doing,” said McLeod-Skinner.

A visible step has been installation of a 4-by-6-foot whiteboard on which all applications are tracked. That allows staff to quickly see what’s going on, augmenting the computer systems that can show progress electronically with searches.

“We thought that it would be really important to show where we are at in the process and where individual permits are at,” said McLeod-Skinner.

Gold Beach responded when the city put out a statewide plea for help after the loss of most staff. But because the department is still on a mostly paper-based permit application process, assistance with skill in that area was desired.

“With COVID, there’s not a whole lot going on,” said Gold Beach City Administrator Jodi Fritts, who is also the town’s planner. She saw Talent’s need for help posted on a FEMA site and contacted McLeod-Skinner.

Planning tech Anthony Vieira, who is also Fritts’ office assistant, has been coming over to help out two days a week for three weeks so far. Talent pays Vieira’s salary and lodging. Once a vacant position is filled, he will return to Gold Beach full time.

“We wanted to help because it’s horrible, what happened there,” said Fritts. She had spoken with a former city employee who moved to Talent. Her manufactured home survived but an adjacent park burned.

“It’s given (Anthony) an opportunity to see how other jurisdictions work, and planning in the valley is different than on the coast,” said Fritts. Like Talent, Gold Beach doesn’t have its own building department but relies on the county to review plans, so Vieira is experienced with the process. Gold Beach permits are also largely paper-based.

Talent Community Development has worked on issues affecting rebuilding efforts, such as changes to floodplain rules temporarily to allow individuals to rebuild homes where they were previously located.

Besides dealing with permits, the department was able to finish work on a large overhaul of the city’s housing code that had been underway for two years. The council voted March 3 to approve the new code, which includes increased density for middle housing that may be more affordable.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.