The road to compliance: Engineers, architects discuss the impact of regulations

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

Politicians call government regulations “job killers.”

But such laws have birthed a job-creating sector: the compliance industry.

The compliance industry is a not-quite-so-young, ever-changing business sector made up of companies and individuals who help businesses meet standards and regulations. Several firms in Southwest Michigan help companies and local and state governments meet environmental regulations.

Large companies have their own compliance teams. And compliance takes a lot of homework.

Steve Carlisle, director of engineering at Wightman and Associates, has dealt with a lot of state agencies on projects. With Carlisle’s line of work comes regulations his projects must be in compliance with. To stay abreast with these regulations, some training is involved.

The engineering consultant firm, which is based in Benton Township, keeps up to date on regulations through seminars and conferences to engage and understand the changes in the industry.

“They vary quite a bit,” Carlisle said. “In general, most changes are minor tweaks to the existing process. For example, we work with (the Michigan Department of Transportation) quite a bit, and they have standard plans that can change on either an annual or monthly basis.”

Carlisle said it’s not a common practice for Wightman, or others in the engineering industry, to hire out that kind of work.

“We typically handle it internally,” he said in reference to ensuring projects comply with regulations. “We handle it by sending people to various conferences and getting to know how the regulatory agencies work.”

Wightman engages with those agencies early and often, Carlisle said.

This includes the Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s sewer, land and water divisions, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Rural Development Funding Agency, Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

All long government names aside, Carlisle said they can go to them if they don’t know everything about a project – even after all the seminars.

“The sooner they are aware of the project, the sooner it can be approved,” Carlisle said. “It’s up to us to approve something that is acceptable. It’s rare to redo designs because if we focus on the compliance side of projects, we know what we’re getting into.”

Popular permits

Rob Andrews, Merritt Engineering’s vice president and engineer, has been in this profession since 1991.

In that time, the compliance industry has changed immensely.

Professional engineers like Andrews used to not have to do continuing education for regulations in their field. About three years ago, Andrews said that changed.

About 30 hours every two years in continuing education is now required for licensed professional engineers.

However, Andrews said engineers have to do more than that to keep up with the industry.

“It sort of never stops,” Andrews said about regulation training. “If you’re a large enough company, you can add a specialist to do those things. If you’re a smaller firm, you have to have people take these responsibilities on themselves.”

As part of some projects, regulations for permits has also tightened up. Andrews said more work goes into demonstrating a project is in line with the rules.

“Overall, the amount of effort required in permitting has increased to a point where now the bulk of the time is spent on permits, rather than the design (of a project),” he said. “The people on the other end of the permitting process are earnest, but there’s always a delay.”

Animal-friendly regulations

Regulations were created to protect not only the interest of people and businesses, but animals as well.

Whereas businesses like Abonmarche, a civil engineering, architectural and surveying firm, often deal with regulations like the Americans with Disabilities Act, environmental permitting often comes up with engineering firms like Merritt and Wightman.

When civil engineers are working on a project that raises issues concerning wetland or other waterways, the MDEQ come into play.

Years ago, MDOT announced an intention to build a connection between U.S.-31 and I-94. However, a route change was put into consideration because it would affect the habitat of Mitchell’s satyr, an endangered butterfly.

Some rare alkaline wetlands, referred to as fens, are found in the vicinity of Blue Creek and Yellow Creek. The butterfly was discovered in the Blue Creek area in 1991, directly in the path of the freeway.

Following the original alignment of the highway connection would present engineering challenges, requiring long bridges over the two creeks and a system to prevent road salt from getting into the water.

To get federal clearance to build the original alignment, MDOT initially agreed to build expensive “pierless” bridges to cross the wetland area, and to develop the runoff collection system. The project has since seen various changes and still has yet to be seen with an endangered species and a few regulations standing in the way.

Carlisle said Wightman has had its run-ins with protected animals that altered projects.

The northern long-eared bat was added to the list of endangered species in April 2015. Because this bat was designated for the infamous list, it limited Wightman’s construction season on taking trees down from March 31 to Oct. 1.

“Obviously, this regulation is important to protect the bat’s habitat and it requires more planning to utilize federal funds for our road projects,” Carlisle said. “Those don’t happen often, but when it does, it’s immediate.”

Permitting for wetlands and other environmental factors can cause delays, but Carlisle understands the purpose of regulations.

“Yes, there’s more information required. But that’s a good thing,” Carlisle said. “This forces businesses to look at more things, but it does change how we approach things.”

Andrews also said he believes regulations serve the common good. He just wishes it didn’t come at a price.

“I do think they perform a useful function in protecting the environment and our community,” he said. “But it does add to the process of a project. It adds to the cost to our clients and to the time of (the project’s) completion. It slows things down because there are more hoops to jump through.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 26, 2017)


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