Is there no such thing as a good regulation? Or is it that there are just too many of them?
Folks in Tallahassee these days have been saying yes to both questions. Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature both say they want to cut back on red tape, maintaining that it's hindering businesses. To test the theory that Florida businesses face too many regulations, the Times has created a hypothetical new business. Because one of the most common businesses in the Tampa Bay area is a restaurant, that's what we're launching.
Call it the Red Tape Diner.
Restaurant owners face scads of regulations and rules — some of them typical of all business owners, such as the requirements to pay unemployment taxes, and some specifically aimed at their industry, such as rules related to hygiene and food safety.
Before serving its first meal, our Red Tape Diner must be built. That means we owners must deal with permits and inspectors galore, plus get approval for both a plan review and restaurant license.
Before applying for a state license, a wise business owner makes sure all local zoning and building requirements can be met. Our property is zoned commercial — we don't have to deal with getting a zoning variance or a change in the county comprehensive plan — two things that can lead to lengthy delays.
Also, the 15-acre site of our hypothetical diner contains no endangered species — but it does include a 1-acre wetland close to the highway. That could mean trouble.
The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission takes a strict stance on saving wetlands, since they recharge the aquifer, absorb floodwater and filter pollution. Thus, the quickest way to get permission to build would be to avoid the wetland entirely.
But let's say the wetland lies right where the turn-in for the drive-through window would go. The EPC says paving over a wetland can be justified if it's to provide access to a site, and thus would be likely to approve a permit, said Rick Garrity, the EPC's executive director.
Processing that permit application would cost about $2,500, Garrity said. Then there's the matter of making up for the lost wetland. We can pay someone else to do it, or we can try to create our own manmade wetland.
A state agency, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, is also supposed to be watching out for wetlands and will require a permit, too — a fact that aggravates enough developers that Scott's transition committee recommended banning counties like Hillsborough from imposing their own regulations, even if they are stricter than the state's.
Bob Stetler, the EPC's wetlands director, says the EPC's tests are so stringent that "anyone who gets a permit from the EPC will get a permit from the water district."
Still, the state permit — which Stetler said is focused more on controlling storm runoff than wetlands preservation — will cost an additional $2,912. On average, those permits can take three to four months to be issued. Getting the county permit could speed the state permit along, said agency spokesman Mike Molligan, although there is no guarantee.
Now it's time to seek the rest of the permits, navigating necessary approvals in Tallahassee. That means going through the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
"Our primary goal to is make sure food is stored safely, prepared safely and served safely so it can be consumed safely," explained agency spokeswoman Sandi Copes.
There's less red tape here than there used to be. Copes points out that the DBPR started revamping its system in early 2007 and has slashed the time it takes to process an application to a matter of days, rather than weeks or even months.
The biggest time saver and potential cost saver is that most of the back-and-forth happens electronically. The first step is applying for a plan review, which we can readily do online. State officials review the plans to check the location — and existence — of such facilities as the grease trap. The up-front plan review fee: $150. If we have to change our plan, it will cost another $150 for a routine variance or $300 for an emergency variance.
A plan review, among other things, will have to include a sales tax registration number (obtainable through the state Department of Revenue, Sales Tax Division), plus a federal employer identification number (obtainable through the U.S. Internal Revenue Service).
A newly constructed establishment like ours also needs to submit facility plans and specifications to the restaurant division. The submission has to include at least two detailed, scaled drawings, a copy of the proposed menu, and water and wastewater information.
Meanwhile, we're also applying for a restaurant license, also available online. There's an initial $50 application fee plus hundreds more in fees, depending on the size and type of restaurant.
After a plan review is approved and license fees are paid, and the restaurant is built, we can request an opening inspection. Finally, Opening Day arrives. We'd celebrate, but let's hope we don't get too big a crowd. After all, we wouldn't want to violate building capacity and trigger a costly visit from the fire marshal.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. The full version of this article first appeared in the Times on Feb. 6.