116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Like many organizations, the Linn County Planning & Development Department had our systems and normal business practices completely upended by the derecho, both in the immediate aftermath and in the monthslong recovery and reconstruction process.
The suddenness of the storm still is something that stands out for many of us. The sirens were the first warning many of us had that a storm was approaching — an hour later the worst of the storm had passed and left an unimaginable amount of damage.
Following the storm, county offices were without phones for two weeks, which was a critical time of need for many people. Communication systems we typically rely on were no longer working, forcing us to improvise. Planning & Development worked with the Linn County Communications Department to develop handouts with information on resources to pass out to residents of unincorporated areas. Together with the Assessor’s Office, we put as many boots on the ground as possible, distributing handouts and performing initial damage assessments.
In the months following the derecho, Linn County has seen a boom in construction and development activity. Our year-to-date permit activity is up over 400 percent from this same point last year, which has put an increased strain on staff and resources. Further complicating things are the unique challenges created by the overlap of the derecho and pandemic restrictions.
When the derecho hit, our building was open by appointment only to help slow the spread of COVID-19. When coronavirus infections surged in November 2020, our offices closed to the public. This meant that the majority of our customers who normally made applications in person were required to use our online permitting system which is dated and cumbersome to use (we have selected and are in the process of transitioning to a new system).
Additionally, due to the immense amount of post-derecho construction work needed, many people have been unable to find a contractor to work on their home and have reluctantly taken on the role of general contractor in their own projects. This has meant an increase in phone calls and emails between staff and residents, with staff sometimes instructing residents on how to draw construction plans.
Through the chaos and uncertainty of the past year, the workplace culture of Linn County has provided a solid foundation for reacting to and addressing these challenging circumstances. Linn County has invested significantly in training staff to implement a “Customer Centered Culture,“ and in particular training staff to see things from the perspective of our customers. This has been invaluable in helping staff address some of the most daunting challenges from this past year.
To compensate for the lack of in-person interaction while our offices were closed to the public, we have significantly improved our digitally available resources. This includes updates to our website to offer more resources including step-by-step instructions on how to apply for a permit online and checklists for different types of construction projects; these are intended to help our customers who are unfamiliar with the permitting process. We have also implemented virtual inspections where possible to improve efficiency. Additionally, we are working on different ways to deliver information, recognizing that our customers have a wide range of media preferences. When all else fails, we are happy to talk with customers to work through their individual needs. Now that the Jean Oxley Public Service Center has reopened, you can even stop in to talk to us!
It is our job to help our customers — Linn County residents — navigate zoning and building regulations with as much ease as possible and to ensure building projects are completed in compliance with current code requirements to safeguard the health and safety of occupants.
According to the International Code Council, studies show good code enforcement decreases loss following disasters by up to 25 percent.
Linn County’s team of building officials have a combined 86 certifications. We are proud of our own Luke Maloney who was recognized in 2020 by the Building Safety Journal for earning the Master Code Professional certification. This is the highest level of designation the International Code Council offers and Luke is only one of 900 people worldwide to earn this certification.
We are dedicated to protecting the public by creating a safe and resilient built environment and doing so in a customer-centered way.
Charlie Nichols is Linn County planning and development director.