City business rules send heads spinning

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The maze of rules and regulations is nearly making the opening the Fontaine Caffe & Creperie more than Kyong R.Yi can handle. After spending weeks applying for a special use permit to extend the hours of the previous restaurant, and two weeks scheduling a health department visit, Yi was delayed further because she needed a ladder permit. The city requires a permit to use a ladder on the sidewalk to access the sign above the door but Yi didnt find this out until the other permits were secured. In the multi-stepped process for small businesses, somehow you miss things, she said.

Yi signed the lease in March but her health department request sat at the health department for two weeks because the guy who looks at it was on vacation, she said.

Yi is not alone. Although much of Old Towns attraction is the small shops and boutiques that brings window shoppers from all over the area, business owners are finding the rules, regulations and city processes difficult to navigate to the point that they seem against small businesses.

Marg Peterson experienced much of the same when she tried to replace her sign at the Prince Royal Gallery. Although she was just covering the existing sign, Peterson needed a building permit, which cost $55. I was just putting a new front on it, she said. Its the little guy whos taking it on the chop, she said.

Inter-office miscommunications were one issue for Alyssa Theodore when she got the permits for The Sugar Cube candy store on Lee Street. One office says one thing, another office says a different thing, Theodore wrote in an email. Although there were steps listed in the city information, Theodore suggested the city put more information under each step, explaining it further.

Navigating the City Hall process is nothing new and the city realizes the process is somewhat cumbersome, said Tom Fairchild, the business facilitator at the city. That is an issue, he admitted. Back in the beginning, the rules had a purpose. The citizens wanted them, Fairchild said, and they elected City Council to pass the rules and regulations to maintain the Old Town atmosphere.

To someone going through the process for the first time, its an arduous thing, Fairchild added. The city is trying to put it all on the web. Certainly there is a goal to make it more user-friendly, he said.

Gloria Flanagan at Alexandria Small Business Development Center, pointed at the web-based information too, but its a lot of stuff, she said. The process has several major steps, which Flanagan called hoops to jump through, and the prospective business owner dont have all the help to get over them, she said.

When the Economic Sustainability Workgroup met in June 2007, this process was one of the topics. On page 17 of the Key Recommendations of the Economic Sustainability Work Group, findings of the group were that the city is perceived throughout the region as unfriendly and negative to those opening or operating a business and this reputation harms economic development, the document stated. It then goes on to give six recommendations, with the last one focusing on web-based material. The goal should be on line, not in line, it states.

Many business owners have hired lawyers to help them with the city processes, but lawyers are expensive as Yi found out. I certainly couldnt afford to hire lawyers to go over and deal with it, she said.

For Sandy Lewis, who recently opened Hanks Oyster Bar on King Street, the lawyer route was worth it and the whole process took 45 days. We had a really positive experience, she said. The local lawyer she hired was well worth it.

City Council
This issue was addressed in a recent City Council retreat on Saturday, Oct. 27. The Economic Sustainability Work Group recommended rationalizing the development and permitting processes as one way to attract businesses to Alexandria. We know that we need to improve our customer service throughout the city and, particularly, in these areas, said City Manager Jim Hartmann.

One example of improvements that are already underway is the reorganization of the Code Enforcement Department. John Catlet is the new Code Enforcement director.

We are looking at ways to reorganize our department so that one person is in charge of a business going through the permitting process, Catlet said. Also, we are working with the other agencies who are often involved in both permitting and in special use permits for developments to consider a permitting center. Some communities have gone in this direction and we will be visiting some of these centers to see how they are working.

Farroll Hamer has been the citys Planning Director for only six months. There is no reason why an applicant cant be given a list of what is needed to complete a process and an estimate of how long that process is going to take, Hamer said. The problem frequently occurs when the applicant is missing five documents is given that information then only brings back three of the documents. The process does need to be made more transparent and we are working to make that happen.

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