A record backlog of development plans awaiting review in Fairfax and Prince William counties has slowed some projects to a standstill, area developers are complaining.
Weather has been perfect and order books full, but personnel problems in Fairfax County's review office and staffing problems in Prince William's have left work crews idle at several projects during this peak building season, contractors contend.
"We have jobs that were supposed to start six to eight weeks ago, and now we can't get them started," said Kevin Aiken, vice president of Phoenix Development Corp. He said some of his crews are "basically standing around" as they await final approval for three projects.
Developers acknowledge that plan reviewers in Fairfax County's Department of Environmental Management have been swimming upstream valiantly, trying to keep abreast of the flood of construction plans filed since development in the county took off in 1983. Those efforts include a contract with Bechtel Inc. for help in clearing up some of the backlog.
But developers also are blaming poor management and a shakeup within DEM for the worsening delays -- a contention DEM officials deny.
In March, the head of design review, Stuart Terrett III, who oversaw processing of development plans, and two of his deputies were transferred. Shortly after, another deputy retired, and last month, Terrett's replacement, R. Barry Thompson, was asked to resign, reportedly for claiming false credentials.
"When they are in the midst of a Prince William's backlog also rising.Page E6 building cycle that is at an all-time high, that's not the time to choose to reorganize major staff," said Tony Ahuja, spokesman for the Northern Virginia Builders Association.
DEM Director Claude G. Cooper disputes claims that management changes have affected the pace of plan reviewing. "I would say that is not a factor," he said.
The DEM backup for major plans has increased from 242 plans, or 12 weeks of work, on March 9, when Terrett left, to 338 plans, or a 16-week backup, by July 15. But Cooper attributes the increase to a jump in the number of plans submitted. In February, 91 new plans were submitted to the office, compared with 121 in June.
Cooper said DEM was aware last summer that plan reviewers would be severely stretched as development continued to boom; the department estimated then that 210 more people would be needed to handle the volume, in addition to the existing staff of more than 300. But the board of supervisors "had difficulty dealing with that," he said.
In fact, according to DEM records, the pace of plan review has picked up over the last three months. DEM records show that in February and March, the staff completed about 16 reviews of site plans, subdivision plans and public improvement plans per week. Over the next three months, the department reviewed an average of 23 plans per week. These figures, however, exclude review of preliminary plats, record plats and waivers -- essential steps before a developer can break ground. DEM could not provide complete statistics.
"It's very frustrating. We have given eight or nine nonsalaried employes extended vacations because we don't know when the work will be there," said John Flynn, vice president at Caudle Construction. Caudle still has two plans under review, out of 12 projects in the county.
Developers, meanwhile, say the backlogs will affect new home buyers by delaying the completion of homes already purchased and pushing up prices of those not begun.
The Milton Co.'s George Pulson said he expects to tack an extra 2 percent onto the price of town houses at Fair Ridge in western Fairfax to help absorb the extra cost of carrying the land while plans are caught in the county's bottleneck. Milton had advertised its Fair Ridge homes for prices between $80,000 and $130,000.
Jerry Clement, director of purchasing at Wills & Van Metre Corp., expects prices of town houses in section two of Old King Station in Alexandria to be 2 to 3 percent higher than those in the first section.
"I think it's going to depress sales, too, because it's an opportunity lost with interest rates as good as they are," Clement said.
To keep the plans moving, on July 22 the county board of supervisors agreed to a six-month contract with Bechtel, one of the nation's top engineering firms. At a cost of $338,000, Bechtel is loaning DEM 10 engineers.
Many developers are encouraged by the Bechtel contract. But they also fear that engineers unaccustomed to Fairfax County's ways could create new problems.
"We'll probably see plans coming back with comments we've never seen before, which creates more time with more submissions," said James Payne, an engineer with Greenhorne & O'Mara. His firm is waiting for approval of 22 plans.
Other observers say that hiring Bechtel is only a stop-gap measure. "I'm deeply concerned about Bechtel. It's going to add a whole new level of bureaucracy to a solvable problem," said William A. Hazel, a developer awaiting final approval for 12 site plans.
An increasing number of engineers, furthermore, report that their plans are getting lost in DEM.
John Elkin, a partner in Bengston DeBel Elkin & Titus, said two sets of construction plans he submitted to the department recently have disappeared. Phoenix's Aiken said DEM also has lost plans from his company.
In addition, Signature Vice President Roy R. Barnett said his company recently began constructing a single-family subdivision only to discover two months later that DEM had not given its final approval to the plans, contrary to what plan reviewers had told Signature engineers.
Cooper said he hopes these problems can be resolved with Bechtel's help. By the end of the six-month contract, Cooper said he hopes to have the plan backlog down to between 77 and 201 plans.
Meanwhile, builders like William L. Barry Co. are having to tell customers to wait for their homes.
"I'm trying to get all the earthwork done by September," said Caudle's Flynn, "but if I have to wait until the beginning of November, it starts getting pretty bad."