Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (center) announced a new electronic building permit system in Baltimore. She's joined by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young (left) and Acting Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (center) announced a new electronic building permit system in Baltimore. She's joined by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young (left) and Acting Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman. (Yvonne Wenger/The Baltimore Sun)

Homeowners, business owners and developers no longer have to stand in line at a downtown office counter to request city building permits.

Mayor Catherine Pugh announced a new system Wednesday, called ePermits, that lets applicants request building permits online using smartphones, tablets and computers.

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Pugh said she is looking at ways technology and online access could improve the delivery of other city services.

"In today's age of technology, why aren't we doing more things online?" she said. "We cut down on the time now it takes for people accessing permits, but we want to do that throughout the city."

The permits are most often requested by developers, contractors and construction companies.

Building permits are not required for ordinary home repairs and maintenance, such as replacing hardwood floors, adding new roof shingles or making minor electrical updates. Homeowners or contractors must request them for certain jobs, such as building an addition, installing a new alarm system, knocking down an internal wall or performing significant heating and air conditioning work.

The city housing department issues more than 30,000 permits a year, representing $2 billion in construction. Of those permits, 10 percent are for major projects processed online through the city's ePlans system since 2012. The other 90 percent had to be applied for in person at the department's offices at 417 E. Fayette Street, near City Hall.

The ePermits system allows applicants to pay online and receive permits via email. Requests for some small projects can be processed automatically through the system with permits ready in about 30 minutes, including on nights and weekends.

Customers who submit applications that require staff review will receive a response within one business day.

The system allows customers to send and receive messages from staff, upload documents, print approved permits and drawings and review previous applications, according to the agency. Contractors will receive electronic notification anytime an applicant seeks to add them to a permit request.

Acting Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman said the system is designed to provide a better customer service experience while helping contractors and developers complete their work more efficiently.

"This is a guiding principle of Mayor Pugh's administration, and that is to improve the customer experience so that the customer can be doing what we want them to be doing: investing their time and energy into Baltimore city properties," Braverman said.

A test version of the system launched in January to give housing officials feedback from a small group of users. Letters were mailed to contractors in February, alerting them to the new system and giving instructions on how they could sign up.

Since then, more than 30 percent of customers have gone online to request the documents, Braverman said.

Customers can continue to visit the agency's offices to request a permit while the city transitions to the new system. Kiosks, YouTube tutorials and weekly trainings are available for customers who want to try ePermits.

Officials said the system was developed internally, saving the city an estimated $2 million.

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The agency plans to automate the process to schedule an inspection and give inspectors hand-held devices to be able to approve projects in the field, Braverman said.

Local developer Aziz Housseini used the system during its testing phase, and said before the process was online he could easily spend an hour or two waiting to get a permit.

"It's important, as Baltimore city becomes more competitive with surrounding counties and cities, to be up to par with our technological advancements," said Housseini, whose AZ Group plans to build about 50 apartments and retail space on the west side of downtown.

Councilman John Bullock of West Baltimore said the permitting process has a been a barrier to investment in Baltimore. He said ePermits will make the process more transparent and predictable.

"We're trying to court investment in our communities," he said. "This is really a step in the right direction, moving us into the 21st-century."

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