Ginger Sottile is the Community Development Manager for the Town of Sandy Springs. The Community Development Department is comprised of four divisions: Planning and Zoning, Building and Land Use, Code Compliance, and Permits. In this Q&A, Sottile discusses the authorization process and other topics.
How has the license changed in the last five or ten years?
The biggest change is that we have gone paperless, changing our workflows and process. For example, walk-in traffic to the permit office has decreased, but phone call and email volumes have increased as customers learn to navigate these new systems and processes. As we become a more IT-centric department, the technical expertise needed to operate in this new digital realm of permits has grown exponentially. We have reconstituted traditional positions into a new hybrid of old and new, which has strained the staff and the public we are trying to serve.
We encourage all applicants to apply to Build Sandy Springs on line. This portal allows users to access all of the City’s building regulations and provides information on how to apply for a land development, building or utility permit online. Users can also upload construction drawings for city review, pay bills, schedule inspections, and search public records.
For those who still want a more personal touch or aren’t as computer savvy, staff are in the office from 7:30am to 4pm and are happy to serve anyone in person.
Going paperless was something we were looking for, but COVID-19 accelerated the process. Going digital has also brought changes to our physical office space. During the design and construction of our current department, compartments were installed to account for paper. Now we are considering using this space for additional standing desks to meet the need for more staff.
The complexity of today’s computer systems has created a need for more specialized talent. Some jobs within the department now require a higher set of technology skills than in the past, which has also impacted our labor costs.
But I enjoy working through the adaptations of this job field. Watching people improve their skills and adapt to the demands of their ever-changing jobs is exciting to watch.
How has the City improved its customer service efforts?
Our mindset is to be a customer-centric organization. We try to educate the public in different ways: Building Sandy Springs Seminars, one-day developer meetings every Thursdayspecial sessions for developers who cannot attend the Thursday sessions, etc. While these efforts require a lot of staff time and resources, we believe that in the long run, it benefits our city. They are valuable tools to help developers and owners keep their projects on track. We received a lot of positive feedback about the meetings.
Being a customer service organization is at the heart of everything we do and everyone who works here. And if there are any misunderstandings or issues that need to be resolved, we want every customer to feel like they’ve been heard and treated with respect. We also strive to be thorough and provide as much information as possible.
Good news is that we have recently hired a Customer Service and Licensing Manager. We have reconfigured our department to separate permits from the buildings division and make permits its own division. This will allow for greater consistency and customer-centric relationships with the public. The Permits Manager – Sheila B. Quick – will be in the permit area all the time and will provide top notch service to our customers. She will reinforce protocols, look for areas that need improvement, and ensure the right process is followed every time.
We also have a lobby ambassador who greets incoming customers. The Ambassador will acknowledge their attendance, confirm that they have made an appointment in advance and, if not, assist customers login to our on-site queuing system. If they are not in the right place, the Lobby Ambassador will be happy to direct them to the appropriate staff member or City department.
What three things can a permit applicant do to ensure their permits are approved in a timely manner?
First, take advantage of our Thursday meetings before submission to see what each of the different reviewers (site, planning and zoning, building, arborist, sustainability, GIS, fire, transportation) will be looking for on the plans. Additional information on the process, types of permits and submission requirements are available on the City website.
Second, be sure to read and respond to all comments. If you do not understand the questions or comments, please seek clarification from the reviewer.
Third, make sure we have all the proper supporting documents, such as affidavits, business licenses, contractor licenses, etc.
How has the community development profession evolved over your career?
Development patterns change as the population grows and the demand for housing and commerce increases. Every community I have worked in is unique and they all have their development challenges. And while they may be different, some similarities shine through like housing affordability, traffic congestion, escalating real estate costs, and more.
What advice would you give to someone looking to enter your career field?
It’s hugely rewarding, but also requires a significant work commitment. Evening meetings and public engagements are the norm in this career field.
The result of this hard work is the achievement of improved development in the community where you work. Seeing this come to fruition is priceless.
What sets Sandy Springs apart from any other town you’ve known?
Sandy Springs is an amazing place to work. The City, Mayor and City Council demonstrate strong leadership and demonstrate unwavering support for its residents and the development community. We are blessed with very thoughtful and deliberate leadership. They examine all aspects of a problem before making a decision, and the success of our City reflects this approach.