First quarter sees 'noticeable increase' in building permits

SUWANEE -- If recent indications continue, the residential housing market in Suwanee could return to 2007 levels.

City of Suwanee officials recently reported to the city council that the average monthly building permits for single family attached/detached units was 7.7, which was the highest average since 12.75 in 2007. At that pace, the city is on track to issue about 92 permits this year, while it had 59 last year and 43 in 2010, planning division director Matthew Dickison said.

In the last months, city Planning Director Josh Campbell said he's noticed a bit of momentum from builders calling his office.

"They're coming in and applying for 10 at a time, or 12 at a time," Campbell said. "So it's a noticeable increase in activity in the last quarter."

In 2005 and 2006, the city averaged more than 45 per month, while at the bottom of the recession three and four years ago, the average was three.

"It's a sign of good things, hopefully," Campbell said. "Those improvements show up on the tax digest. When you have no new homes added, then you rely on increase value of property as the only way to grow the digest."

Highland Station is the only neighborhood that doesn't have ongoing development activity, and McGinnis Reserve is on track to finish its build out in the next year. When McGinnis Reserve was built in 2007, it was feared to be a "pipe farm," Campbell said, meaning lots were platted but not built upon.

The original buildout estimate after the first quarter of 2009 to finish the neighborhoods was 52 years, but now it's updated to just four years, Dickison said.

The city categorizes levels of growth by "slow," "moderate" and "rapid" Campbell said, and these recent economic indications mean it's returning to the pre-recession "slow" levels.

Yet that good news doesn't help to explain why the Case-Shiller Index, which measures home values in metro Atlanta, continues to report sagging numbers, Campbell said.

"You would think that would say, 'Stop building,'" he said. "But people are continuing to build."

Along with permits, Campbell also reported a spike in development reviews, which are done prior to building an apartment complex or gas station, for example. Plans to build used to be put on hold because of lack of funding. But recently, that's changed.

"Now, suddenly, they're coming in, talking to you about it, and a month or two later, they've applied for a development review," he said. "It seems the money for commercial development is loosening up. People are starting to get the money they need to move forward with these projects."