What began as a desire to replace legacy permitting software nobody especially liked turned into an urgent need when Chatham County, NC, experienced a cybersecurity incident.
The October 2020 ransomware attack shut down online permitting services during a time when County lobbies were closed due to the pandemic. Immediately after the incident, staff no longer had telephones, email, or computer software. Their primary modern convenience: electricity.
So, teams in four departments—Watershed Protection, Environmental Health, Planning, and Central Permitting & Inspections—got creative. They replicated their permitting and inspections processes on personal computers, signed up for Gmail accounts, created records in Excel, and shared files using Google Docs. It was a Band-Aid solution that lasted about six months.
In the meantime, a team representing all four departments conducted interviews with digital permitting and inspections providers, including OpenGov. By the new year, the team unanimously chose OpenGov Citizen Services. The solution was ready for the first phase of online permitting in March 2021. Other phases followed in April and June and July.
“I think the speed at which OpenGov was able to move and provide us with full resources and knowledge (albeit a crash course) was amazing, and it directly led to us being able to get back to normal quicker than any other alternatives,” said David Camp, Director of Permitting & Inspections. “Now we are showing others how to best use the software and the advantages of sharing data through this open platform.”
6-week implementation timeline
70% submittal rate through portal in 6 months
40,000 annual inspections conducted through OpenGov
Plan to have Chatham County and Town of Pittsboro collaborate in one portal
Tremendous Growth Feeds the Need
The need to bring a workable permitting solution online, stat, was especially great in Chatham County. With more than 20% growth between 2010 and 2020, and 2 multi-billion dollar investments just this year, it’s one of North Carolina’s fastest-growing counties in what is called The Research Triangle, an area anchored by three major research universities: North Carolina State, Duke, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
To accommodate the growth, a planned 7,000-acre community promises 22,000 housing units, retail spaces, and restaurants by its completion in 2045. It’s hoped the development can help offset an influx of new residents who will come for job growth. Vietnamese carmaker VinFast is building a new facility that will attract 7,500 new jobs—the biggest single investment in North Carolina history. A new 338,000-square-foot FedEx distribution center with the need for 300 employees, also promises more growth for the County. The 250-year-old County, home to about 80,000 people, is also planning for a proposed new $4-billion semiconductor plant on more than 1,000 acres, its first high-rise hotel, 400 units of new apartments, and a new assisted living facility. And just outside the County’s permit jurisdiction, a new 120,000-square-foot Coca-Cola plant.
In a County that conducted nearly 40,000 inspections through OpenGov Citizen Services between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, the growth has tapped the County’s inspection resources so much that they have hired additional inspectors from neighboring jurisdictions.
To meet the need, the County has been using inspection resources from other municipalities in the short term and plans to increase inspections staff by 50%.
Success for a Wide Array of Services
It’s no surprise the four departments using the OpenGov portal are so busy. They have diverse responsibilities within the County when it comes to building expansion and development.
Environmental Health’s scope includes wastewater and septic permits and monitoring, well permits and water sampling, sanitation inspections, food and lodging oversight, and public health. Central Permitting & Inspections handles all building permits and inspections as well as fire inspections. Watershed Protection oversees stormwater plans and works to control erosion and prevent flood damage. Among the Planning Department’s responsibilities are issuing residential and commercial zoning permits, subdivision approvals and agriculture exemptions.
Although their responsibilities are diverse, department teams often collaborate, which is easy to do within the portal. For example, a building permit isn’t issued until the team sees that well and septic tank permits have been issued.
One of the best things about OpenGov’s solution, according to Camp, is being able to get a wealth of information in one view. Because County records are linked to the address for which permits were obtained, he doesn’t have to ask another staff member or the customer where they are in the permitting process.
“I can see all the other records under that location,” Camp said. “I can see what the steps are. I can see the color coding—and that’s where color coding really helps with OpenGov. At a quick glance, I can tell, without even diving into it, I can tell they got that. It’s already green.”
Within the first six months of using OpenGov Citizen Services, 70% of permits were submitted through the portal. Camp sees that as a strong validation by customers.
“We had customers asking us to convert their permits from our old system (manual spreadsheet) to OpenGov because they found it much better and easier,” he said. “Another important aspect that I appreciate is the training time for employees—they’ve picked it up quickly.”
Creating Opportunities for Others
As County officials have shown the advantages of sharing data through OpenGov’s platform, staff in the Town of Pittsboro, where most of the growth is happening, realized the digital permitting solution would benefit them. Because the County provides many services to the Town, the County plans to add Pittsboro to its “menu” of departments in OpenGov. When completed, Pittsboro customers can use just one site, and both municipalities will be able to see Permitting’s progress.
“It’s like having a filing cabinet, but the filing cabinet is electronic,” Camp said. “I like that the system is just an extension of the way we used to do business except that it’s electronic. It’s virtual versus physically having the filing cabinet beside me or the piece of paper over here.”
Now that the County has the ability to see all the approved permits, along with the departments involved, it gives users a collective knowledge. Camp advocates for taking this knowledge one step further. Before buying or moving into a location, a business owner could learn what types of materials were stored at the site. During an emergency, the Fire Department or a 911 dispatcher could pull up a location’s records to see what materials may be stored there.
“It’s all about sharing information,” he said.
As Camp looks back, he sees tremendous progress that stemmed from an unplanned event that allowed the County to find and implement a solution. He’s thankful—if not a bit surprised—that teams from the four departments came to a consensus and unanimously chose OpenGov. “We’d like to credit the OpenGov staff, who made it easier for our departments to collaborate and make this decision together,” Camp said.
“We all agreed OpenGov was the best platform for us. We liked how it worked. We liked that we could each design our own permitting through the form and through the workflow. It didn’t require coding. OpenGov doesn’t look like an AS400 system. It looks like a modern system that was developed in the 21st century, not these old mainframe systems that people still use.”
– David Camp, Director of Permitting and Licensing
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