(Photos courtesy of the City of Sandy Springs)

Ginger Sottile is the community development director for the City of Sandy Springs. The community development department is comprised of four divisions: planning and zoning, building and land development, code compliance, and permitting. In this Q&A, Sottile discusses the permitting process and other topics.

How has permitting changed the last five or 10 years?

The biggest change is that we’ve gone paperless, shifting our workflows and processes. 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 computer-centric department, the technical expertise needed to function in this new digital permitting realm has increased exponentially. We reconstituted traditional positions into a new hybrid of old and new, which has placed a tremendous strain on staff and the public we are trying to serve.

We encourage all applicants to register at Build Sandy Springs online. 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 invoices, schedule inspections, and search public records.

For those who still want a more personal touch or are not as comfortable on a computer, staff are in the office from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and happy to serve anyone in-person.  

The shift to paperless was something we had been pursuing, but COVID-19 expedited the process. Going paperless also brought about change to our physical office space as well. When our current department was designed and built, there were cubbies installed to account for paper. Now, we’re looking at using that space for additional standing desks to accommodate the need for more staff.

The complexity of today’s computer systems has created a more specialized need for talent. Some jobs within the department now require a higher technological skill set than in the past, which has also affected our labor costs.

But I enjoy working through the adaptations of this job field. Seeing people enhance their skill sets and grow into the demands of their ever-evolving jobs is exciting to see.

How has the City improved its customer service efforts?

Our mindset is to be a customer-first, customer-centric organization. We try to educate the public in a variety of ways: Build Sandy Springs seminars, all-day developer meetings every Thursday, special sessions for developers who are unable to attend the Thursday sessions, etc. While these efforts take significant staff time and resources, we believe in the long run it benefits our City. These are valuable tools to help developers and homeowners keep their projects on track. We have received a lot of positive feedback on the meetings. 

Being a customer service organization is central to everything we do and every person who works here. And if there are misunderstandings or items that need to be addressed, we want every customer to feel as though they have been heard and have been treated with respect. We also strive to be thorough and provide as much information as possible.

One exciting bit of news is that we recently hired a customer service/permits manager. We reconfigured our department to separate permitting out from the building division and make permitting its own division. This will allow for more consistency and customer-centric relations with the public. The permits manager – Sheila B. Quick – will be in the permit area all the time and will provide white glove service to our customers. She will reinforce protocols, look for areas needing 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 presence, confirm they have made an appointment in advance, and if not, will help customers sign into our queuing system onsite. If they are not in the right place, the lobby ambassador will gladly direct them to the appropriate City staff member or department.

What are three things a permit applicant can do to make sure their permits are approved in a timely manner?

First, take advantage of our Thursday meetings prior to submission to see what each of the different reviewers (Site, Planning & Zoning, Building, Arborist, Sustainability, GIS, Fire, Transportation) will be looking for on the plans. Additional information about the process, types of permits, and submittal requirements is available on the City’s website.

Second, make sure to read and respond to all the comments. If you do not understand the questions or comments, please ask the reviewer for clarification.

Third, make sure we have all the appropriate supporting documentation, such as affidavits, business licenses, contractor’s licenses, etc.

How has the Community Development profession changed during your career?

Development patterns evolve as the population grows and the demand for housing and commerce increase. Every community that 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 property costs, and more.

What advice would you give someone looking to enter your career field?

It is tremendously rewarding, but also requires a significant work commitment. Evening meetings and public engagements are the norm in this career field.  

The result of that hard work is realizing improved development of the community where you work. Seeing that come to fruition is priceless.

What makes Sandy Springs different than any other city you have experienced?

Sandy Springs is an amazing place to work. The City and the Mayor and City Council show strong leadership and demonstrate an unwavering support to its residents and the development community. We are fortunate to have very thoughtful and deliberate leadership. They consider all sides of an issue before deciding and the success of our City is a reflection of that approach.