BROOKSVILLE — County commissioners have long heard the lament that the Hernando County Building Department isn't "user friendly'' and actually drives away some businesses.
Delays in permitting, extra hoops to jump through and code compliance issues that cost small businesses more than they can afford are common complaints.
So, when a letter from a local accountant's office surfaced in the commissioners correspondence this week, Commissioner Dave Russell said it was time to have a discussion.
He suggested that the county hold a commission workshop on these frustrating issues. New fire codes and enforcement of existing codes have "led to the suppression of new businesses in this county,'' he argued.
But Chairman John Druzbick has asked for more time before the commission jumped into the fray. He explained how he had taken the initiative to begin new internal dialog to create the customer-friendly permitting process that the county has long desired.
Druzbick told his fellow commissioners that he had met with both the county's fire chiefs, Michael Nickerson for Hernando County and Michael Rampino for Spring Hill, to discuss the multiple interpretations of fire code.
Shouldn't the building department also be at the table in those discussions? Russell asked.
Druzbick said they were and that he has talked about the code issues with Ron Pianta, who now oversees the planning and the building departments. He also said that he plans to meet with representatives of the local builders association after Thanksgiving to further the discussion.
"I do think that we need to be more customer friendly,'' Pianta said. Buildings must be safe but ''we are looking at codes in a more holistic sense,'' he said.
Part of the problem, he said, is working through conflicts in the codes when the fire code says one thing and the building code another.
Nickerson said the county must ensure that buildings are safe and minimum codes are followed, but that "we are on board 100 percent'' to work through some of the conflicts.
He explained that commissioners will soon be asked to make some changes that will help the process, including having two seats on the county appeals board with fire experience and also allowing the board to hear fire code appeals.
"That's going to be a huge step in unifying building and fire code compliance,'' Nickerson said.
Because some fire codes are state mandated, the staff might want to gather a list of codes that need to be reconsidered because they are cumbersome or unnecessary, suggested Commission Jeff Stabins.
He said that the new governor, Rick Scott, who ran on a platform of deregulation, might be interested in helping out with that issue.
The real problems have been with the buildings that must undergo remediation to change their uses, Russell said. If a business is looking at spending tens of thousands of dollars in fire protections not needed by the previous business, "that's where we're hitting the wall,'' he said.
Druzbick said on Friday that there are have been issues with a variety of the rules. In some cases it was fire sprinklers. In others, it was fire walls. The key is that the county staff had to find a way to offer options that would allow the same level of safety to be achieved while not delaying the permit or bankrupting the business before it even opened its doors.
"I'm not saying that you break the codes,'' he said.
The key is to be more helpful and provide more information up front for what a business will need to do to complete the county's process.
"I am frustrated as a commissioner, as a business owner, over the stories I hear on a frequent basis about how hard it was to get in,'' Druzbick said. "It should not be that difficult.''
County administrator David Hamilton suggested that the staff work toward bringing recommended changes in the process and the rules to the commission for their Dec. 14 meeting. That way, he said, the county could start the new year on a better foot with local businesses.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.