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City pushes plan to meet before remodeling starts

January 26, 2019

Even John Caywood says it could be viewed as “kind of a horror story.”

A few years ago, an enterprising business person bought a downtown Fort Wayne building with plans to open a restaurant on the first floor and living on the third floor.

Then, realizing the second floor was mostly wasted space, the proprietor “had the wonderful idea that it had potential to be an area for weddings and receptions and special events,” said Caywood, commissioner of the city-county building department.

Workers redid the floors and power-washed exposed brick to realize the vision. But what the proprietor didn’t realize was that, as a commercial space, there were rules to follow for guests’ safety.

With a wedding with 100 guests booked only a few days away, fire inspectors found the area had no exit and needed sprinklers : and that was only part of what was needed to comply with commercial building regulations. 

“They had to cancel some events, and it smashed their dreams,” he said.

If an isolated case, the situation would be bad enough, Caywood said.  But the story “is not the only story,” he said. “People purchase buildings all the time and don’t check what the requirements are.”

That’s why the building department this month is instituting new procedures for commercial remodels that stress bringing parties to the table before projects get started, he said.

The procedure is similar to project meetings instituted by the Department of Planning Services for streamlining new development projects, Caywood said.

In those meetings, developers and builders talk with staff to learn if a property needs to be rezoned, requirements, special use rules, rules for placing structures and landscaping appropriately.

Building department projects also entail the involvement of multiple departments, including the fire department and health department, Caywood said.

Under the new procedure, the building department “would be the first stop for any commercial remodeling,” Caywood explained.

Once a remodeler submits plans, the plans would be reviewed and the application distributed to the appropriate agencies, which have three days to approve or point out deficiencies. When the application passes those reviews, the building permit will be issued.

Some aspects of the new system can be handled online. More information is at www.allencounty.us/building-department under the “Remodel CAP” tab. 

There are no additional fees for the additional service because fees are based on square footage of projects, Caywood said. Most of those who would use the new system would be remodeling contractors, although sometimes small business owners undertake remodeling, he said.

The idea for the system has been in development for about eight years, he added. Training sessions for remodelers will be scheduled through the Building Contractors Association in upcoming weeks, he said.

The process got its “soft opening” this week, with some projects serving as pilots, Caywood said. There have been some recent delays in processing several aspects of the department’s work, but that should end soon, he said.

Caywood said the procedure aims to cut down on remodeling problems cropping up midstream.

What he would most like to prevent is having to invoke the remedy available under the current rules : requiring the remodeler to tear out already completed work.

“It’s very valuable (to contractors) and more business-friendly,” Caywood said. “When the regulators and inspectors come around to sign off (on projects), we end up dashing some people’s hopes, and we don’t want to do that.

“When multiple departments are able to review plans,” he said, “we aim to prevent heartaches from inexperience. And we keep the public safe.”

rsalter@jg.net

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