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Culture change: Valley move gives county permit department a whole new outlook on service

“It’s breathtaking,” John Starbard says of his new view.

The snowy mountains that spring up outside his corner office just off the Snoqualmie Parkway are a far cry from the industrial hangars that greeted the director of King County’s Department of Permitting and Environmental Review only two months ago.

The county’s permit division has gone through some big changes lately. The former Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES) changed names and locations, moving to a 22,000-square-foot second-floor space at 35030 Douglas Street on October 22.

Its annual lease, $300,000 from Meriwether Partners, is about half of what the county paid for its old digs in Renton.

“Over the course of our lease term… we know that we’ll save millions,” Starbard said.

Methune architects in Seattle performed  a complete set of improvements, upgrading the space from an empty shell.

The change in space and site are meant to bring a change in the way this department does business.

“When you’re in a business park in Renton, and your view is the 737 plant, you begin to think, ‘That’s what we do,’” Starbard said. But from the Ridge, taking in the outlying timberland and valleys, “you can see for miles. That’s our territory. Every day, we’re seeing our customer base in a way we never have before. I think that informs us about what we really do these days, which is rural permitting, rather than urban.”

New flow

The new site makes the county that much more accessible to its customers, who, increasingly, come from the rural parts of the county. Starbard said the county is winding down a decade-long wave of urban incorporations. That means his department is ideally placed to serve the customer of the future, who is interested in permitting a new rural home or subdividing small acreage. That encounter now means a 15-minute drive, instead of 45.

The office also allows a single stop to connect to the county’s public health and roads divisions. A new software portal makes for easier information access.

“It really is a new department,” Starbard says.

Like his boss, county engineer Ray Florent is also struck by the beauty of his suburban surroundings.

“I love it in Snoqualmie. It’s so much more worth it,” he says. At his cubicle, “This will be home,” at least until retirement in about two years.

The new home is a lot less “chopped up,” the engineer says. Split up into two halls over three floors, collegiality in his old department involved some serious walks.

“I forget what the mileage was,” Florent says. “Here, rather than a product line, it’s more area-oriented. It’s the next cubicle over. Things move a lot faster.”

Florent’s office is on west the side of the building, the side that handles major annexations. It will shrink with time.

“We know we are a downsizing department,” Starbard says. “So when remaining potential  annexations are gone, we’ll have about 65 employees.” Those who remain will fit in the east wing.

Spirit of innovation

At a recent visit, County Executive Dow Constantine praised what he called a spirit of innovation at the new permit headquarters, while Councilwoman Kathy Lambert commented on how the team brings a heart and face to an important department.

“You make people’s lives better, every day,” she told gathered employees. “The idea that you’re reorganized, renamed and relocated are all good…. There are fewer of you. Which means you have to use your skills every day in new ways. That brings out the leadership in you.”

Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson said the city is thrilled to welcome the department. He promoted local businesses and trails.

“You’ll find this a pleasant place to work,” he said.

“Enjoy the fresh air,” Lambert said.

• Office hours for DPER are 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 35030 S.E. Douglas St., Suite 210, Snoqualmie. Learn more at www.kingcounty.gov/permits.

 

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