On a recent day at the District's regulatory agency, those waiting in line to obtain building permits killed time by making final adjustments to their applications, reading a newspaper, chatting on cell phones and, in George Mitton's case, catching a nap.
Mitton, a landscaper, was trying to get permission to build a deck on a house. But he knew he was in for a long wait. He had already submitted his plans twice and was waiting to do it a third time.
"I started this process March 20," said Mitton, who nodded off in his chair while waiting for his number to be called. "What I'd like to do is take someone from the mayor's office down here, someone who can make real change, and take them through the process, make them wait in line."
He's not the only one who feels that way. Although some developers say the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has made progress toward its goal of emerging from the bureaucratic nightmare it was in the 1990s, smaller companies and residents say it still has a long way to go.
They complain that it lacks sufficient staff to make the permitting process efficient and has not developed a fail-safe method to ensure that projects are handled in a timely manner.
Most large-scale developers find the process so time-consuming that they hire expediters to handle virtually all their permitting work. Often former agency employees or former architects or developers, these expediters can be seen daily in the halls of the regulatory agency at 941 North Capitol St. NW, dropping off blueprints, checking on permits and meeting with structural engineers.
But those who cannot afford expediters -- who can charge hundreds of dollars for even simple permits -- can be so mystified and frustrated with the process that they break down in tears or lose their tempers and have to be removed by security, according to city leaders, residents and expediters.
"I don't think we should have a system that makes it so complicated that people have to hire expediters," said D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), who oversees the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
The agency, which has a $30 million budget, is charged, among other duties, with enforcing the city's complicated zoning rules and with ensuring safety -- and protecting the city from liability -- on building projects.
Its 392 employees oversee functions that touch people throughout Washington: monitoring major construction projects such as the new Convention Center; inspecting restaurants for health code violations and abandoned properties for safety hazards.
In the 1990s, its reputation matched the drab, rat-infested building in Chinatown that it called home. Files were kept on paper, projects were routinely lost.
In the late 1990s, the D.C. Financial Control Board declared war on the agency's sloth. When Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) took office in 1999, he continued the effort. The agency moved into a new building.
More significant changes were also made: The department began to develop a computer database; the so-called "war-room," where customers are sent first, was overhauled to make the process more orderly; and officials started a "development ambassador" program in which employees monitor larger projects.
David A. Clark became head of the agency two years ago after serving as D.C. postmaster. His slogan: "Creating the Best!"
"The expectation is great government, but the reality is good government," said Clark. "What I think we've done is create a careful balance so that while people might not always get the answer they want, they know that what they hear is right and it's the law."
The agency this year began another program to speed the processing of larger projects. Under a new system, the city has certified 18 private firms to review projects for major developers, who thereby bypass the agency.
Clark shows off figures culled by his own department that indicate that 95 percent of complex building plans submitted are reviewed within 30 days, compared to 51 percent two years ago.
Some developers dispute the statistics, but others are encouraged.
"What has evolved over the last five years is a level of consistency," said Roger N. Trone, president of Regency Commercial Construction Inc. "That was our biggest complaint. You never knew that if you filed drawings on X date, you could count on getting them back on Y date. It was not unusual to have to keep calling and no one reviews things in 45 days. That's no longer the case."
Large companies do more to ensure their high-expense projects move forward by hiring expediters. Developer Jim Abdo, whose company specializes in luxury condominiums, estimates he pays expediter Jim Smith $20,000 a year to handle 25 to 30 permits.
Smith, a former architect whose company is called Mr. Permit, charges $110 an hour.
The benefits of expediters are readily apparent because they know the process better than many of the agency's employees do. On a recent afternoon, Smith's assistant, Steve Merchant, dropped off blueprints, checked on projects and met with reviewers. He also dispensed free advice.
"I've seen people get dragged out of here by security" after they lost their temper, Merchant said. "They get frustrated because they get routed somewhere where they don't need to be."
Jim Stout, who does painting, masonry and carpentry, had trouble during his first visit to the agency on a recent day. He first went to the wrong room, didn't know what forms to fill out and had his wife wait in one room while he went to another when he got confused.
He was relieved when he got unsolicited help from an expediter.
"I'm sure I would have had to come back again tomorrow if it weren't for him," Stout said.
Clark said his department will soon unveil a new on-line tracking system that will allow customers to monitor their application. The agency also began a new program in which processors in three vans travel into neighborhoods to issue permits.
But many developers say the agency desperately needs more staff. Its budget is scheduled to be reduced by about $665,000 and by six positions for fiscal 2004. "It's a daunting process for anyone," said Cynthia Brock-Smith, a vice president at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. "Sixty to 65 percent of our members are small businesses who cannot afford an expediter."