By John Schaffner

Sally Mills, the deputy commissioner of the city’s Bureau of Watershed Protection, suggests that frustrations expressed by business owners trying to open restaurants and other food operations about delays in getting their grease trap or wastewater discharge permits approved are not normally the result of inefficiencies in her department.

Grease trap permit applications are referred to her department through the Bureau of Buildings for review and inspection. “But this group does not have the final signoff,” she explained during recent meetings.

The plans “start at the Bureau of Buildings and they finish at the Bureau of Buildings,” she stated. “We are not able to shed a lot of light on the process that goes on in the Bureau of Buildings. That would be an area for Ibrahim Maslamani and Steve Cover. James Shelby is the acting commissioner for now.

Maslamani is the head of the Bureaa of Buildings in the Department of Planning and Community Development. Cover was the city’s commissioner of Planning and Community Development until he resigned Sept. 26 to become a vice president in the Atlanta office of an international planning firm.

Cover and Maslamani are widely criticized by contractors, business owners and even privately by some members of City Council for not having implemented promised improvements to streamline the process of obtaining permits required for construction projects and opening and operating businesses.

Mills was answering questions regarding allegations by two food service business owners of excessive time lapses and costs involved with obtaining grease trap and other permits for their new businesses in an article that appeared in the Sept. 5-18 edition of the Buckhead Reporter.

The businesses profiled in the article were two new start-ups by Linton Hopkins, the owner of Restaurant Eugene in the 2700 block of Peachtree Road, and Savor Specialty Foods, which has since opened in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center.

Both Hopkins and Robert and January Hodgson, owners of Savor, reported costly delays in dealing with Mill’s office and the Bureau of Buildings, a lack of concern on the part of city employees and even one case of plans sitting on a shelf and not being attended to because the name was in the wrong spot on the application. Since that article, several more business owners have voiced similar problems with the city regarding the permitting process.

“There certainly is concern on our part on the food service establishments that they comply with the ordinance and that we review promptly. We have a turnaround time that is very short,” Mills said. But she pointed out, “This is one piece of a much larger process. The Bureau of Buildings would be the right people to speak to the streamlining of permits. There has been a big effort in the past year, but I personally cannot speak to all the aspects of that”

Mills explained that her office is responsible for enforcing city ordinances prepared to protect the sewer system from grease discharges, which clog the sewer system and cause overflows.

The city’s ordinance dealing with grease traps is divided into two sections. One applies to new construction. The other deals with existing structures, which involves either no renovated work or construction where no plumbing permit is required from the Bureau of Buildings. They are considered grandfathered in and don’t need any signoff by the plumbing division.

It was a new program adopted by the city in 2001 and changed again in 2002. The ordinances are posted online, they are available from the city’s web page, they are available in hard copy in the clerk’s office. Anybody who needs to know the rules can go to the ordinances and see what they are required to do.

Alternatively, there is a permit for discharge into the wastewater system that this group issues that is not related to new construction or the Bureau of Buildings. She said an application for a wastewater discharge permit generally takes from 3 to five days after submission of a complete application.

Her staff does pre-design review for the Bureau of Buildings and they cannot impact the construction permitting process but for a couple of days. “It should take only a short time for pre-design review and they don’t even refer 100 percent of them for pre-design review anymore,” Mills said. “Recently, we have had a small number come over for review because the plumbing staff has gotten better at knowing what is cut and dried and doesn’t have to trigger a review.”

In a second meeting, Mills and Watershed Manager Tracy Hillick reviewed their records on three specific cases: Linton Hopkins’ new H&F Bread Co. and new Holman & Finch Public House and Savor Specialty Foods.

H&F Bread Co. plans were received March 12, 2008. It was classified as a commercial bakery only and not as a food service establishment. There was no requirement for a grease trap. But Hillick pointed out there is another regulatory program involved here called the Industrial Pretreatment Program. “If they are operating as a commercial bakery, it is possible they have to have an industrial wastewater discharge permit.” Inspectors have been notified to inspect the bakery and determine if a permit is necessary.

The Holman & Finch Public House application was first received and reviewed Sept. 9, 2007. The plans were finally approved three months later on Dec. 4, 2007 after required modifications were made to the grease trap. But the business did not open until April because of a delay in getting the liquor license.

In the case of Savor, the first meeting between Hodgson and Jackie Anderson in Mills’ office was scheduled for July 16, but it did not happen, “possibly due to crossed signals as to date and time.” Plans were first received in the office on July 24. On July 30, “the plans were reviewed and did not reflect existing facility conditions,” according to Anderson’s notes. After requested information was in hand, Anderson’s records show, they signed off on the plan on Aug. 5.

“The plans got reviewed six days after they arrived,” Mills stated. “It took a little longer than normal, but that was because (Anderson) was on vacation when the plans arrived.” Mills did not think this was too long of a review period. However, Hillick said “it was a longer period of time than he would like to see.” “Our role in the regulatory world and the compliance world is to ensure that things go smoothly and people are given service as rapidly as possible, Mills stated. “Making sure they are in compliance is our chief concern. Making it easy is our other chief concern. I don’t think the problems the applicants had in the cases we looked at were chiefly here.”