Pandemic slows permits and projects, but Waltham soldiers on
The city of Waltham, Mass., has had builders flocking to it for the past several years. Close to Boston yet far enough away to avoid major traffic gridlock, the town of 72,000 is home to Brandeis University and boasts great locations and sensible property prices. In fact, Waltham in 2019 recorded $11 million in permit fees, its highest ever, for some $300 million in construction value. With several large projects underway — including a massive, one-million-square-foot laboratory/research and development facility — 2020 looked to be pretty solid.
Then March hit, and the city, like many in the nation, began dealing with novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases; initially with only extra precautions. “We still were allowing the public in the building,” said Waltham Inspector of Buildings/Superintendent of Public Buildings William Forte. “But we were wiping down counters and cleaning everything really well.”
Then, the city had its first case around March 10, growing to six by the following week. By the end of the month, the city had its first COVID-19-related death. As the nation watched the cases grow in the New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts areas, Waltham officials were taking their cues from their governor and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Knowing what was coming, Forte said he shut down his department from March 16–20 so he could develop emergency plans for contractors during a time of increasing self-distancing and quarantine. “We still work with paper files,” Forte said. “We’re in the process of finding a program, but we’re not there yet. Changing 100 years of procedures is a bit daunting.”
While the department re-opened for business, the office closed. Forte sent out the new procedures he wrote, including, for the first time, procedures allowing building permits requests to be done by mail and email. Building Department inspection staff would still be accessible by email and voicemail to answer questions. Emergency responses for inspections such as fires, flooding, fuel gas leaks, and electrical or unsafe structures would be handled immediately through police dispatch or emergency hotlines (911).
As of March 30, when the city recorded its first death, the state coincidentally stopped all construction and permitting throughout Massachusetts except for new housing. Permits for single- and multi-family construction then had to be submitted by placing them in a dropbox outside the Government Center, but only by appointment on certain days. Although the city isn’t set up to handle permitting electronically yet, all plans or single- and multi-family projects now are required to be placed on thumb drives. “And we’re not going out on any non-essential inspections,” Forte added.
“We are doing final inspections on any property that is subject to real estate closing or substantially renovated one- and two-family unoccupied buildings,” Forte said. That type of construction is deemed essential by the Governor’s Order. And when they do these inspections, he said, no one other than the inspector is allowed on site. “Non-essential inspections can either be done by pictures and email, or if too complex, must be on hold until we can substantiate compliance.”
Forte said business has been pretty slow with permits and inspections since the state shut down most construction during the pandemic. He expects it to bounce back once the virus is gone.