Manchester's building department mired in red tape, says Willow Street business owner
By NANCY WEST New Hampshire Sunday
Fred Fricker, owner of Willow Street Auto, at his business in Manchester on Saturday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)
Fred Fricker says he opened his three-bay garage addition to his Willow Street Auto car dealership a year ago, but it took so long dealing with the Manchester building department to acquire his building permit that he vowed he would never do it again.
Fricker estimates he lost aproximately $200,000 because of the delays experienced trying to meet city requirements before he could open. It took 36 weeks just to get a building permit after first applying in May of 2011, Fricker said.
"The process seems to not be set up for the little guy. It's too expensive and difficult for the small businessman, and that's sad," Fricker said.
Fricker said he is still unsure whether he has a valid occupancy permit, but decided to speak out anyway "if I can make it easier for the next guy."
Fricker said he called Mayor Ted Gatsas more than a year ago for help to no avail. But on Friday afternoon, he called Gatsas again and got an apology.
"It was great," Fricker said of his conversation with Gatsas. "He said he was sorry and asked me for some suggestions to improve the process."
At first, Gatsas told him it was Fricker's own fault for changing his plans frequently during the process, a position held by Planning Director Leon LaFreniere.
But Fricker explained his complaint had nothing to do with a project he previously abandoned involving building a rooming house. LaFreniere had included that proposal in a timeline he prepared of Fricker's case in February for Alderman Jim Roy, who was looking into the delays, and last week to Gatsas.
Gatsas on Friday said he told Fricker had he been aware of the details of his situation, he would have immediately invited him in for a meeting.
"I said to Fred, 'They do 10,000 permits a year. I apologize … We made a mistake.'"
Gatsas went on to tell Fricker about the changes he has instituted since July when a code enforcement officer closed the patio of KC's Rib Shack during the busy July 4th holiday. Gatsas signed a directive that department head approval is now required before an inspector can order immediate closure of any business.
Gatsas said any business with concerns about building permits and procedures will be referred to William Craig, the city's new economic development director. Gatsas also recently launched a new link called Business Coach on the city's website to help businesses understand the permitting process. It is available in print, as well.
"I think it is going to simplify the process, so people know exactly what they need to do," Gatsas said.
LaFreniere said his department tried to help Fricker, but added that with complex commercial buildings, many people hire an expert to guide them.
"(Fricker) just kept changing his plans throughout the process and didn't follow through. We tried hard to help him through.
"He wanted to build a new building in a new location, then build another, then changed his mind and wanted to do something different. He didn't have a lot of experience with the process and didn't take advice," LaFreniere said.
Fricker said he received no help from city officials.
"Max Sink (deputy director of building regulations) said he was too busy to give me any help," Fricker said.
Sink was unavailable Friday, but recently told the Sunday News he does try to help people whenever he can. He said he helped Alderman-at-Large Joseph Levasseur, an attorney who owns Theo's restaurant in Manchester. Before he was elected in 2012, Levasseur reopened the restaurant after a fire with a verbal approval even though all of the work hadn't been completed,
Levasseur said he doesn't get special treatment because he is an alderman, and sometimes faces even stricter scrutiny.
Being an alderman does give him more clout to help constituents, Levasseur said.
"Government listens to elected representatives more often than not," Levasseur said Friday.
Levasseur said he regularly hears complaints involving building permits.
"Nobody likes to be told what to do, and nobody wants to make changes they can't afford," Levasseur said.
People should contact their alderman if they do have problems with building or any city department, Levasseur said.
Levasseur and Alderman Roy had intervened on his behalf, Fricker said, but it didn't help.
Roy, the aldermanic representative on the planning board, said that when he raised Fricker's concerns, he was told the delay was caused by city documents being sent to Fricker's former lawyer instead of to Fricker.
Fricker said he ran out of money for lawyers and experts.
"It was just an addition to a garage. It wasn't this major thing. It was crazy," Fricker said.
Much of his financial loss came from not being able to open the repair business. It cost about $30.000 for surveyors, a lawyer, engineers, architects, and permit fees and another $25,000 to actually build the addition.
Some of the issues raised by the city were small, but just caused more delays, he said.
"I planted two trees. Leon said they were too small," Fricker said.
He planted bigger ones.
After his conversation with Gatsas, Fricker said it's time to determine whatever happened to his occupancy permit. He hasn't heard anything since the conditional permit expired last October. He has met all the requirements of the conditional occupancy permit except for the granite curbing, he said.
"I'm going to head down there on Monday morning," Fricker said.