Since March 25, Gov. Brad Little has consistently labeled construction firms as essential businesses. Not every local government in Idaho agrees, however. Several local governments have, at one point or another in the last month, banned construction work within their boundaries.
For instance, Teton County has effectively banned all new construction. As of April 6, the county will not authorize any new construction until the statewide stay-at-home order is lifted. County commissioners will allow emergency repairs and maintenance. They will also allow construction projects that received permits before April 6 to continue if they meet certain requirements, such as having no more than five workers on-site at a time and complying with remote inspections. But no new construction will be permitted.
It seems counterproductive that Teton County is allowing previously permitted construction work to continue, but not allowing new construction. The risk of contracting COVID-19 is the same, no matter when a firm’s construction project obtained its permit.
But the city of Bellevue might have an even more counterproductive construction regulation. Bellevue issued its initial ban on construction on March 30. The local order established that “commercial and residential construction is not considered essential infrastructure and shall cease operations.” The problem with the city’s ban is that a cessation of all construction meant Bellevue was actually breaking its own ban.
The city authorized work by a road surveyor, to prepare for an upcoming subdivision project, during the construction ban. Some council members felt that was a violation of the ban. So when the city council voted on April 13 to extend the ban, it specifically exempted government construction.
With such an action, the city of Bellevue took the same path as the state of Washington, which only ordered private sector construction to shut down, but kept public sector construction running. It seems Bellevue, Idaho, may have confused itself for Bellevue, Washington.
The city did offer some correction to the irrational exemption just a few days later. On April 17, the city issued a new order, which allowed commercial and residential construction to resume if workers can comply with certain city guidelines. These include handwashing, wearing personal protective equipment, social distancing, limiting equipment operation, no carpooling, no shared tools, no communal microwave, no off-site lunch breaks, and other requirements.
Bellevue is not the only city in Idaho to have detailed construction requirements. From March 30 to April 19, all commercial and residential construction in the city of Ketchum was banned. Starting on April 20, construction could resume if workers met strict standards — the same standards set by the city of Bellevue.
Similarly, from March 30 through April 19, the city of Hailey had a ban on construction. The ban expired on April 20, and the city announced that construction firms could begin work as long as workers follow construction guidelines. And a similar order of events occurred in Blaine County.
The problem is this: When a local government bans construction, whether or not it eventually undoes the ban, it leaves a mark on Idaho’s economy. According to the city budget planner in Boise, the nation is seeing a 22% decrease in new housing construction through the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the largest decrease since 1984, and it is especially problematic for the economy of a growing state such as Idaho.
Banning construction, whether for a week, a month, or a year, interferes with commercial and residential projects that support our state’s economy. As such, local governments should be very wary of imposing such bans. And if they have one, they should reverse it.