The Bureau of Development Services in Portland, Ore., has proposed an amendment to the city’s zoning code that would extend through 2012 the expiration dates of land-use reviews on permits approved between April 2006 and December 2008.

Under the existing code, builders and developers that don’t obtain a building permit within three years of getting approval of their land-use review have to go through the process again. The Daily Journal of Commerce in Portland reports that the process costs between $15,000 and $20,000 in fees, and can rise above $100,000 if consultants and studies are required.

The proposal, for which the HBA of Metro Portland lobbied, is an attempt to help local developers that either are reluctant to apply for permits or are having trouble getting them approved at a time when construction activity is undeniably weak. Through the first two months of 2009, the number of building permits issued in Portland and its surrounding communities, at 538, was less than half of the 1,372 issued during the same period a year ago, according to Census Bureau estimates. Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis projects that the state’s construction employment would decline by 16 percent this year, and won’t start recovering until 2011. “Developers were faced with letting the permits expire or moving forward on projects that weren’t economically feasible,” says David Nielsen, CEO of the HBA of Metro Portland, which lobbied for the extension.

Portland’s City Council is expected to consider this proposal on April 15, which means that if the amendment passes, it could go into effect as early as April 20. Nielsen tells BUILDER that other cities in Oregon have either approved or are considering similar extensions, although some are balking, which is why, he says, the Oregon HBA is pressing for a statewide measure.

Portland is also taking steps to streamline the permitting process and improve how its myriad housing programs are administered.

First, permits for multifamily and commercial construction will now be handled under the Bureau of Economic Services.

That’s good news, says Tom Skaar, the head of Pacific Western Homes and the Portland HBA’s current president. In the past, he told BUILDER last Friday, commercial and residential construction that wasn’t single-family had to obtain water, transportation, and environmental permits. Given that each of these fell under different commissioners, resolving conflicts could be difficult and time-consuming. Now, all permits will be funneled through a bureau under the authority of Commissioner Randy Leonard.

“I don’t agree with Randy on everything, but he’s not obstructionist, and over the past few years he’s made a real effort to work with builders and developers,” says Skaar.

Second, in July, the city will officially replace its Housing and Community Development bureau (whose budget this year is $45.2 million) with a new Portland Housing Bureau, which also absorbs the housing division of the Portland Development Commission. (The Oregonian reports that about 40 of the commission's 200 employees will move over to that new entity.) Each agency, to this point, has been operating its own outreach, policy, homeownership, and legal departments, according Nick Fish, the city’s commissioner of public works, whom Mayor Sam Adams placed in charge of this transition.

Fish has been conducting a search to find a director for the new bureau. The city has not disclosed the cost of this transition, although Adams contended in a statement last December that a new housing bureau would “be strengthened by closer connection with PDC’s community economic development and workforce development programs.” Critics that include The Oregonian are concerned that the maneuver will weaken the Portland Development Commission.

John Caulfield is senior editor at BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Portland, OR.