Central Ohio communities are mobilizing to keep up with building and zoning applications during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order – making use of online video hearings and even virtual inspections of some construction projects.

Ohio legislators did their part in March with approval of House Bill 197, which allows a temporary easing (until December 1) of some procedures for public meetings so communities can hold online meetings and hearings. Public notification of meetings and accommodation of public comment is still required.

Many construction plans and projects have continued during the shutdown, but activity has slowed. In Columbus the number of zoning applications is down about 25 percent from the typical year, officials said. After a slow start, planning and zoning staff have increased the pace of reviews as they settle into working remotely. There is a backlog of 20 rezoning applications and 20 variances ready for review through the city’s 19 area commissions.

Jon Melchi, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio (BIA), said efforts by local governments and the state have kept Ohio’s building industry better than those in some other states.

“We’re treading water,” he said. “We’re losing ground, but we’re not drowning.”

Melchi made those comments during a webinar MORPC and BIA hosted April 17 for builders, developers, and municipal officials. Staff from Reynoldsburg, Columbus, Delaware, and New Albany discussed their procedures.

Reynoldsburg Development Director Andrew Bowsher said the city recently approved a new zoning code to enforce its 2018 comprehensive plan. The streamlined code allows more projects to be reviewed administratively rather than through city council, he explained. The city also allows for virtual inspections of many sites.

New Albany is working to keep up the pace, too. Among other things, the city uses a virtual video process for 80 percent of its site inspections, said Michael Barker, deputy director of community development. (An example of the video inspection process is at the 57:50 point in the webinar linked above.)

Communities have information on their websites with instructions on submitting applications, getting permits, and arranging inspections.

Columbus has an unusual challenge not faced by other communities. It has 19 area commissions that hear rezonings and variances at the neighborhood level and make recommendations to the city. Officials already had established procedures for public comment at city council meetings, which now are being held every other Monday at 4 p.m. But such procedures for area commissions are more complicated.

Columbus officials hosted a conference call April 17 with various area commissions that make recommendations on zoning applications. All commission meetings and hearings were cancelled through April, but Scott Messer, Columbus director of Building and Zoning Services, said on the call he still hopes commissions can hold zoning hearings in a teleconference format by May. Some already are on track to do so.

Columbus neighborhoods and area commissions have varying access to virtual platforms, and even computers, due to economic disparities, generational differences, and library closures. Many Columbus area commissions meet in libraries, which have been closed.

While local governments are trying to facilitate construction of new things, they also need to serve existing businesses affected by COVID-19. Sean Hughes, economic development director for the City of Delaware, addressed those at the MORPC/BIA webinar last month. He said the city has helped organize collaboration among businesses and assisted in grant and program applications.

Hughes said the city now is planning for the reopening of businesses with a business survey and videoconferencing that will help develop guidelines for merchants and others.