Fairfax County's residential and commercial construction boom has left the county's building inspection staff overworked and short-handed, with inspectors facing doubled workloads.
In general, inspectors are spending only half the time considered necessary to properly inspect all phases of the construction process countywide.
Both public utility inspectors assigned to site inspections, and trade inspectors looking at mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems are feeling the crunch.
As a result, the county is considering using outside consultants from local engineering firms on an "as needed basis" to help solve the problem.
In spite of some criticism that such a process could lead to conflicts of interest, both county officials and representatives of the Northern Virginia Builders Association think the results would be beneficial, in light of the current inspection burdens.
County officials readily admit shortcuts are being taken. Spot checks of sewer lines in a town house project, for example, may have replaced individual unit-by-unit site checks, according to county officials.
"There are things going unchecked," according to William Rucker, deputy director of the Department of Environmental Management, often referred to as DEM.
"We try to focus our efforts on both structural and fire safety," Rucker said this week.
"There are 44 public utility inspectors and 1,550 projects currently underway. That means each man has about 6 1/2 minutes per project per day," Rucker said.
Public utility inspectors are charged with keeping up with an entire project. "They will inspect the curbs, gutters, sewers etc., trying to make sure the builder is keeping up with the detailed engineering plans submitted with the site plan," Rucker said.
He said those inspectors need to at least double the time they have for each project. As it is, "inspectors are going to have to put it an inspection off or juggle things around in order to get to the sites he is responsible for," Rucker said. "Things are being done, but not as thoroughly" as might be possible, he said.
The county's "trade inspectors" are reportedly equally overburdened. They are the ones who must pass on the guts of a project -- the structural, mechanical, plumbing and electrical components.
"There are 17 specific inspections we are called in to make on each project" whether it is a house or a simple commercial building. "If a building passes every inspection, then there are just 17 inspections. But every time there is a 'reject' there has to be another inspection," Rucker explained.
Like the general inspectors, trade inspectors are giving each assignment half the time Fairfax officials would like. The average is now 10 minutes. "We would like to see that doubled to 20 minutes," Rucker said.
This week the board of supervisors voted to grant one-year full-time status to 25 inspectors who have been working on a part-time basis. They will begin as soon as the paper work is processed. But this is only a short-term measure.
A subcommittee including supervisors Joseph Alexander and Elaine McConnell is currently looking into ways to help solve DEM's staffing problems.
The board of supervisors has also asked DEM to contact local engineering companies seeking proposals as to how they might help if the county were to set up a system for contracting out trade inspections, public inspections and soil testing. Soil testing is a major part of preliminary site planning review.
"We are going to private engineering firms to see what they propose, see how much it will cost and how it can best be handled through a contract arrangement," a county official explained.
The Northern Virginia Builders Association supports the idea of contracting out inspections.
"We have been calling for 'privatization' of the process because we could foresee the need for additional inspectors during a boom," according to Gary Garczynski, the newly named president of the association. Garczynski is president of Signature Communities, a local building firm.
Hiring consultants to help with inspections would boost "the private enterprise system by creating jobs" and avoid adding to the county bureaucracy "while providing a system that overcomes the peaks and valleys" of the building trade Garczynski said.
Like other county officials, Rucker agrees with developers that the workload on the DEM staff is not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future.
Building permits issued during November hit 2,113, a figure that is almost double the 1979 figure of 1,100, and three times the November 1982 low of 740 permits, when the region's construction industry faced tough economic times.
This year's November statistics are higher than the figures for most June and July statistics, Rucker said. These figures do not reflect any of the recently approved commercial developments along the Dulles corridor, the 1,000-acre Westfields development on Rte. 28, major portions of projects approved in the Fair Lakes area or any of the offices, hotels or regional shopping space planned for Tysons II.
"Theoretically, the building season is over, but the normal seasonal abatement of builing activity has just not happened. It just keeps coming along," Rucker said.
DEM employes must process everything from initial site plans and permits for new houses, home remodeling and commercial-industrial structures to final inspections and everything inbetween. Rucker said the current crunch has kept DEM from taking "as careful a look at engineering and architectural computations as we would like to do in approving site plans."
"This is an urgent problem that needs immediate attention," according to one builder. "It is not the time I have to wait to get an inspection. I get my inspections pretty quick. But the problem is the pressure that's on these guys when the workload they have is overwhelming."