May 28, 2020 – A fortuitously timed technology upgrade is enabling Frederick County to continue processing development plans, permits, inspections and other applications for residents and developers as if they weren’t in the middle of a pandemic.

In development since 2017, the county’s fully electronic permitting system went live last December.

“In 2017, who would have thought that we would be where we are today?” said Dustin Henry, Senior Project Manager and Program Manager of Geospatial Business Solutions for KCI Technologies, a contractor on the Frederick County IT project.  Among the county’s permitting staff and inspectors, “the entire staff is working remotely and they are moving along in this current environment as if nothing has happened.”

The Land Management application and public portal enables residents and development teams to submit applications for building, plumbing, electrical, fire, grading and other permits through the Internet, then monitor the progress of their application online and respond to any county requests for additional information. County staff process the applications and log each action taken on the application while the software assigns appropriate inspectors to projects and optimizes inspection schedules.

The Frederick County project is part of a broader effort by local governments to adopt more advanced technologies and sustain operations even in very challenging periods.  Multiple Maryland jurisdictions – including Baltimore City and Howard and Montgomery counties – have established electronic submittal processes and some others are exploring or in the process of implementing such capabilities.

Industry experts say governments could adopt additional technology to enable development projects to proceed even while the challenges of dealing with COVID-19 persist.

During an April webinar organized by the International Code Council, building inspectors from Ohio, Nevada and Florida reported that they are conducting more inspections via Facetime, Skype, Google Duo or Microsoft Teams.

In April, Bohler Engineering reported that it was collaborating with municipal engineers and agency reviewers in multiple jurisdictions around the country to leverage technology to help developments move forward. Some jurisdictions, it noted, are beginning to conduct virtual hearings through video conferencing platforms to get public input on proposed developments and resolve issues with developers.

The Frederick County system, Henry said, has generated significant efficiency gains for inspectors. Accustomed to arriving at county offices by 7 am daily and spending 60 to 90 minutes gathering information about the day’s inspections, inspectors can now start their work days from home, access complete and up-to-date information about each project on their mobile device, and begin their inspections.

“Historically, an inspector would need to carry the plans into the building or rely on the developer to have those plans on site,” Henry said. Consequently, a missing or out-of-date document could disrupt or delay an inspection and approval.

In addition to eliminating that potential problem, the new system is enabling county staff to complete inspections without even travelling to the construction sites.

“We have been able to leverage the use of Microsoft Teams and other platforms to perform inspections virtually during the pandemic,” said Gary Hessong, Deputy Director of the Division of Planning and Permitting.

Using a tablet or other mobile device, a contractor can walk the site virtually with the inspector and display everything needed to complete the inspection. Establishing that process was bumpy, Hessong said. The county developed guidelines for applicants and contractors on how to handle a virtual inspection. Everyone had to adjust to the new reality that virtual inspections can take a little longer and involve more questions from the inspector.  And the process isn’t ideal for every kind of inspection. 

Yet county staff are now conducting 95 percent of inspections virtually and maintaining their normal pace of completing nearly 1,300 inspections per week, he said.

The system is also generating time savings, even in the midst of the pandemic.

For example, “fire permits would typically take two to three weeks. They are down below two weeks,” Henry said. “We are seeing drastically decreased time in how long it takes to review applications because everything is within the system.”

“We are 30 to 50 percent quicker on almost all of our reviews,” Hessong said. “We have established goals and deadlines, and throughout this pandemic, we have been well ahead of our historic averages on processing permits, doing plan reviews and issuing permits.”

That capability to continue the typical workload of processing 20,000 permits annually and completing 70,000 inspections has broader impacts for the county.

“We continue to generate several hundred thousand dollars a month in permit fees. More importantly, construction is allowed to continue and tax revenue is generated on a normal schedule,” Hessong said.