Kitsap projects on hold after Inslee orders construction to cease during COVID-19 outbreak
Construction projects across Kitsap lurched to a halt this week after Gov. Jay Inslee issued an update to his statewide stay-at-home order requiring most residential and commercial construction to stop for two weeks.
Inslee’s original March 23 proclamation ordered all non-essential businesses to close to slow the spread of COVID-19. On Wednesday, the governor’s office issued revised guidelines specifically for construction projects.
“In general, commercial and residential construction is not authorized under the proclamation because construction is not considered to be an essential activity,” according to the governor’s office.
Exceptions are projects essential for public health and safety, as outlined in Inslee's original proclamation, publicly funded low-income housing projects and "emergency repairs" at non-essential businesses and residences. The order lasts through April 8.
The move has shocked and confused developers and sent contractors scrambling to prepare construction sites for what may be an extended shutdown.
“Quite honestly, it’s kind of muddied the waters more than anything,” said Justin Younker, co-founder of Cascadia Senior Living and Development.
Cascadia is a Yakima-based company that operates memory care, independent and assisted-living facilities around the state. The company is behind two projects in Kitsap — a 137-unit assisted living center and a 52-bed memory care facility currently under construction on Clear Creek Road in Silverdale and a similar combination project planned on Bainbridge Island.
Younker said he believed Cascadia was exempt from the initial stay-at-home order because the company specializes in building long-term health care facilities. Following the revisions, construction on the Silverdale project is paused until Cascadia receives clarification from the state.
“That's where we're like, ‘Well we're an essential service,’ and construction is directly tied to an essential service,” Younker said.
Even if the state were to give Cascadia the go-ahead to continue construction, the project would still be delayed because Kitsap County has canceled all inspections for two weeks, Younker said.
“Obviously we want to keep everybody safe just like we do with our residents, that's the primary concern, but obviously if we can keep working we'd like to do that in a safe manner,” Younker said.
Industry groups have voiced opposition to the governor’s revised guidelines. Jennifer Spall, a spokeswoman for the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), said the group is “disappointed” with the changes.
“Our members, their employees, and our customers are disappointed,” Spall wrote in an email to the Kitsap Sun. “Many are unfortunately facing the hard decision to lay off employees at this time.”
That National Association of Home Builders, an industry trade group, tracks which state’s stay-at-home orders classify construction as an “essential” activity. As of Friday, Washington was one of four states in the country that does not list construction as essential.
The confusion over the order and why Washington is breaking with neighboring states has spread industry-wide, according to Sterling Griffin, president of Gig Harbor-based Harbor Custom Homes.
“We're kind of all on the same page, no one really understands,” Griffin said. “We know COVID-19 is a big problem, but why take a path different than Oregon or California?”
Harbor Custom Homes is working on four subdivision projects in Kitsap County and Bremerton, including a 240-lot project on Werner Road. Prior to the outbreak, affordable housing was one of the biggest issues in Washington state, Griffin said. Shutting down residential construction for too long could exacerbate the housing shortage.
“It’s kind of common-sense supply and demand, as prices soar in Kitsap County, the result is people on the financial edge are going to fall off, it’s going to increase our homeless population,” Griffin said.
One developer with a project underway in Port Orchard said even a two-week shut-down could have devastating effects on the state's construction industry.
Oakridge Homes of Gig Harbor is developing 105 lots for single-family homes on 20 acres off Bethel Road. While work is stalled, overhead the company carries will inevitably increase home prices, said Jeff Serven with Oakridge Homes. And he worries about the subcontractors, small business owners who could face significant losses even if the shutdown lasts only two weeks.
"If these guys don't work, it's a really tough situation for them," Serven said. "As far as our employees, we'll take care of them. We're a small company, we're a family company. As far as the industry as a whole, it's really tough because they (subcontractors) aren't eligible for benefits."
When work does start up, there will be a backlog and scheduling issues that will cause further delays and losses, Serven predicts. “It’ll be a snowball effect."
Serven didn't criticize the governor’s order but wished that the state would fine-tune guidelines to allow at least site development work to continue. Serven says there are only half a dozen workers operating machinery on the Blueberry Ridge development. None are likely to get closer than 6 feet from one another.
Permitting and inspections continue
State and local agencies are also adapting to the new construction guidelines.
Kitsap County on Thursday canceled all inspections scheduled for the next two weeks in response to the governor’s order. The county is still accepting permit applications online, but no permits will be issued until the stay-at-home order is lifted, according to Kitsap Department of Community Development Director Jeff Rimack. Exceptions will be made for permits for emergency repairs.
“We are poised to initiate a photo re-inspection and virtual inspection program in addition to our normal inspection program when the order is lifted,” Rimack wrote in an email to the Kitsap Sun. “Additionally we will be prioritizing and moving to the head of the line anyone who’s inspections were canceled as a result of the governor’s order.”
The Washington State Department of Transportation has suspended all construction projects in the state except for fish passage culvert work, according to a department spokesman. The design portions of design-build projects will continue through the shutdown.
In a statement posted to WSDOT’s website, the department said it remains “committed to restarting (projects) when safe to do so to ensure the transportation system continues to support our statewide economy and economic recovery.”
The city of Bremerton will continue to accept permit applications but will only issue permits for essential projects, Mayor Greg Wheeler said. Inspections will only be completed that assist in preventing damage or unsafe conditions at the worksite, per the governor’s order.
Work on a 26,000-square-foot CHI Franciscan outpatient facility on Kitsap Way and an Amazon delivery center near Bremerton National Airport will continue, Wheeler said.
“Those are construction projects that are exempt,” Wheeler said.
An Amazon spokeswoman confirmed that the company still expects the delivery center to open in 2020.
Bainbridge Island city staff are accepting permit applications by email and contacting applicants by video to discuss projects, according to city spokeswoman Kristen Drew. Inspections for construction projects allowed under the stay-at-home order will continue via video or photo.
The city of Port Orchard is still trying to figure out what projects are critical and which ones are not, Mayor Rob Putaansuu said.
"We've got three different (city projects) we're viewing as critical," Putaansuu said. These include the city library roof slated for repair, a sewer lift station under construction and a water well being dug to expand the city's service capacity.
"Hopefully by the time we get ready to do the work, this will all be over and in our rearview mirror," Putaansuu said.
The city will not order contractors to stop work on the lift station or well, which the city defines as critical infrastructure.
As for private projects, the city is continuing to process permits by mail. It has no online permitting system and the Department of Community Development will be minimally staffed to process permits. Building inspections, except those exempted under the order, are on hold.
As with public projects, Putaansuu said, contractors on privately owned projects are the ones that must negotiate with the state whether their work can move forward while the order is in place. "I don't have any control over what other people are doing," he said. "It's up to them to thread the needle with the governor’s office on that."