Maybe their hammers were still thawing out from January, or maybe they were just too busy building a full-size, chocolate sculpture of Johnny Depp for Valentine's Day. (We all had to do that, right?) Whatever the reason, Lawrence home builders slowed down the pace a bit in February, according to the latest report from City Hall.
Lawrence officials issued just five new permits for single family homes in February, which is the lowest February total in at least the past five years. The five-year average has been 10 new permits. For all of 2014, the city has issued 14 permits for single family and duplex construction, which is the lowest level since 2011.
January and February aren't usually critical months for the the Lawrence construction industry. so these lagging numbers aren't any reason for concern yet. But it will be interesting to watch whether the city's home building industry can post its third straight year of increased single family home construction. In 2013, builders started 155 new single family homes. That was up from 123 in 2012 and from the low point of 2011, when only 95 new homes were started in the city.
Other construction projects in the city also have gotten off to a slower start. City officials have issued permits for $9.6 million worth of projects. That's down from $22.7 million worth of projects started by this time last year. The biggest difference has been that apartment construction in the city has taken a pause. Last year at this time, the city had 286 apartment units under construction, which added more than $10 million to the construction totals. Thus far, no new apartment projects have been started in the city in 2014.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The largest construction project started thus far in 2014 is a major addition at the Corpus Christi Catholic School, 6001 Bob Billings Parkway. City officials have issued a permit for $2.3 million worth of construction work at the West Lawrence school and church.
School principal Mary Mattern told me the project will include three additional classrooms, a multimedia library and technology area, a two-story music space and new offices for administration and teacher work areas. The space will be used both by the school and the church for religious classes and parish activities.
The school serves preschoolers through eighth-graders, and enrollment has been growing. Mattern said the school has averaged an 8 percent enrollment growth each of the past five years. Enrollment now stands at a little more than 300 students.
The construction project is expected to be completed by the beginning of the next school year.
• While we're on the subject of building permits, the city has released information from its annual audit of its building inspections division. The new report found that building inspection fees aren't quite covering the full cost of the service the city provides. In other words, general taxpayers are subsidizing the building inspection division to a degree.
The division's revenue for 2013 was about 4 percent less than its expenses, which checked in at about $890,000. So, general taxpayers covered about $36,000 of the department's expenses. Builders, through fees paid for permits and licenses, covered the other 96 percent of the expenses. City officials strive to have the program paid for through fees as much as possible. And the city's building community keeps a close eye on the division's finances to ensure that the fees they pay aren't exceeding the actual expenses. City officials said the 2013 totals show there is a rough balance between the two, and are not recommending any fee increases for the department in 2014.
The report does note that there were 45 projects in the city — mainly affordable housing projects or government projects — that were not required to pay a fee. Those projects had $108,000 worth of fees waived.
The report, however, did not note the amount of fees being waived by the city as part of the Rock Chalk Park sports complex in northwest Lawrence. As part of the incentive package approved by the City Commission, the Lawrence-based private development firm Bliss Sports is getting a full rebate of all of its building permit fees.
I checked with the city about that amount. Officials tell me the city either has or is in the process of rebating about $65,000 in building permit fees as part of the Rock Chalk Park project. Those $65,000 in fees, however, are counted as revenue in the annual report because technically the city is rebating the fees through the issuing of an "economic development grant," which is separate from the building inspection division's budget.