Among the circle of local builders and contractors, it’s known as “the Metz factor.”
That’s how one Montgomery County builder, who has done multiple projects with Metz Engineers as the municipal engineering firm, described it.
He said experienced builders know if they take on a project overseen by Metz Engineers, they can expect to pay much more in engineering fees than if the same project was done in another municipality.
It seems the so-termed “Metz factor” is taking a toll on a growing number of builders, many of whom allege the Lansdale-based engineering firm is abusing its power as the municipal engineering firm for Franconia, Lower Salford and Upper Dublin townships.
In December, The Ambler Gazette ran a series of articles detailing a lawsuit filed by two township residents against Upper Dublin, Metz Engineers and township officials, alleging Metz fraudulently overcharged them to the tune of $59,000.
Since the articles ran, a number of builders and land developers have come forward with nearly identical complaints against the firm.
In each case, the common themes of drawn-out planning reviews, a heavy-handed approach to construction oversight, excessive site visits and outrageous billing practices emerge, leaving many builders to feel something has to be done to address “the Metz factor.”
Officials from Metz Engineers maintain their practices are not out of line for a municipal engineering firm and any perceived issues are part of their just doing their job.
Some builders who have done work across the county have found any project done under Metz’s oversight seems to drag on.
“They take an inordinate amount of time to review a plan — a plan done by a licensed engineer,” said a Montgomery County builder who wished not to have his name used, citing fear of reprisal from Metz on future projects. “The number of reviews that happen are incredible.”
And that time and those reviews translate to charges from Metz.
“In many cases, the cost to review the plan exceeds the cost to actually draw up the plan” even though the engineer hired to draw the plan charges a higher rate, he said.
Peter Penna and his son, Peter F. Penna, have found the same to be true.
The Pennas, who have filed a lawsuit against the township and Metz, subdivided their 3.6-acre lot at 222 Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington, into four lots. For the project, they requested subdivision and land development approval from the township in 2004, not to receive it until 2006.
The elder Penna said Metz dragged out the land development process for two-and-a-half years. During the same time frame, they completed a two-lot subdivision in another township, with that process taking just six months.
“When it exceeds it by this much, something’s wrong,” he said.
For Upper Dublin resident Paul Brown, the process to subdivide his property went on for nearly a decade.
In 2001, Brown, who owns a 5-acre property in the Three Tuns neighborhood, began looking into building a one-story, handicapped-accessible residence using the foundation of a former barn on his property, as his wife suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, he said.
He was told he would have to subdivide his property, a process that in the end — including required wetlands and other studies by his own architect and engineering fees — spanned eight years and cost him $100,000, he said.
At the planning commission stage, Metz Engineers extended the 60-day review period to 220 days, and “each month the bill [from Metz] would be $1,500 to $1,800,” Brown said. “They’d say you have to change this, etcetera, and the extras kept going.”
Metz officials, however, said most of the time, developers cause delays in the review process.
“Our reviews are turned around typically within 35 days or less,” said Jeff Wert, a principal with Metz Engineers and Upper Dublin’s township engineer. “The delay, in almost every case, is not on the review side. It’s on the plans coming back addressing the reviews.”
They also said if plans are done correctly the first time by engineers familiar with state and township codes, the process is a quick one.
“When the plans are done well and done in conformance with the ordinances … it goes through very quickly,” said Jim Rudolph, a professional engineer with Metz.
Specifically addressing Brown’s case, they said a lack of work on his part caused the lag.
Rudolph said Brown did not submit plans until mid-2008, while Wert said he never reached out to the township or Metz during the zoning and conditional use processes.
Builders complained once they get beyond the planning reviews and approvals, the construction process brings a “heavy-handed” approach from Metz.
The Montgomery County builder said it’s par for the course for Metz to tell him to do something one way and then say to do it another way.
“They will give you a list and you’ll take care of that, and then they’ll give you another list. It seems like it never ends,” he said. “They are tougher than any engineer that I’ve ever worked with.”
“They’re very heavy-handed,” said Rob Ayerle of the Parec-Cyma Group, which is finishing up a project in Upper Dublin and has been in the building industry for 30 years.
Ayerle said he has worked in a number of municipalities across the county, including neighboring Lower Gwynedd and Whitpain townships, in which he found the engineering processes much more straightforward.
The Pennas, meanwhile, have compared Metz’s approach with that of another inspector on the same project.
After having Metz oversee the project from 2006 to 2009, Upper Dublin took Metz off the job, and the township’s public works department took over inspections.
After reporting numerous problems with Metz — including having inspectors instruct their contractors how work should be done — the Pennas said there were no problems with the township on board.
“After the township took over, they started doing it the correct way, the cost-effective way because it was on the township’s dime,” the younger Penna said.
Metz officials said there is often a conflict with builders and contractors, who are often looking to complete a job at the lowest price, while Metz is looking to ensure it’s done correctly.
“We just want to make sure things are done right,” Wert said.
“We’re the guys who enforce the rules and regulations,” Rudolph said. “We’re not responsible for a builder’s profit margin. Oftentimes, there is a conflict. Our obligation is to the township, to make sure they build what the plans said they would.”
They said these conflicts sometimes emerge because they point out problems with the original designs.
Upper Dublin Township Manager Paul Leonard said engineers are unlikely to admit a mistake to their clients and instead blame the township engineer.
“It’s something that consistently happens — the township engineer is criticized by the design engineer,” Leonard said.
Metz also said its involvement in construction often benefits builders. When an issue arises, they will work with the builder to fix it immediately rather than shutting the site down — keeping it more cost- and time-effective for builders, they said.
“If we can be accommodating in the field, we’ll do it,” Rudolph said.
“Unfortunately, we’re criticized for it,” Wert said.
The Montgomery County builder said he understands Metz has a job to do, but he feels the firm crosses the line.
“I don’t mind a tough inspector,” he said. “You have to follow the rules, but there has to be a reasonableness factor.”
“I think we’re tough, but we’re fair,” Rudolph said.
“I think we’re more stringent than most,” Wert said. “Yes, we’re probably more diligent, but we take the job of certifying improvements seriously.”
Numerous site visits
A major part of the “heavy-handed” approach to construction oversight is excessive and unnecessary site visits, the builders allege.
The Montgomery County builder said on one project, inspectors from Metz drove to the job site and sat in a truck, reading the newspaper.
He also said Metz is supposed to notify builders before coming for inspections, but the firm often sends inspectors without notification.
“The hours just go on and on,” he said. “Metz is not the only one that does that, but the order of magnitude is higher.”
The Pennas said they were charged for unannounced inspection visits — visits they say clearly became excessive.
Inspection reports from Metz for the month of June 2009, which were provided to The Ambler Gazette, reveal the firm’s seemingly constant presence on the Pennas’ job site.
From June 1 to 26, inspectors came to the site 19 days, including 10 days when multiple inspectors visited. On six of those days, the Pennas were billed for eight or more hours of inspection time. In total, Metz billed 106.25 hours for inspections during those 19 days.
“These guys were out there 24/7 — days we weren’t even working,” the younger Penna said.
The inspection reports validate this claim, showing trips were made to the site on six days that month when no work occurred, mostly due to weather conditions.
In response to the claim of showing up when no work occurs, Wert said, many times builders fail to call Metz to cancel scheduled appointments.
Ralph Alessandrini, an inspector with Metz, said while plans are often perfect on paper, when construction begins, site specifications sometimes do not match the plan. Inspectors then have to work with the contractors on site to address these issues.
Metz officials said there’s a need for continual inspections to ensure work is done correctly, since at the end of the project, the firm must certify the work.
“We’re here to enforce the codes; we’re here to make sure the people who live here, the taxpayers get what they should,” Wert said. “It’s definitely a responsibility I take seriously.”
In every case, the review process and inspections all translated into growing bills from Metz, which were accompanied by a litany of administrative fees, the builders said.
“Metz administrative fees are through the roof,” the Montgomery County builder said.
According to bills provided to The Ambler Gazette, the minimum time period Metz charges for administrative duties is 15 minutes, and the rate is $40 per hour.
Some examples from the bills include charging 15 minutes, or $10, for typing a memo, downloading photos and scanning, faxing and filing documents.
The Pennas said while their site sat idle, they still accumulated an approximately $4,000 bill, mostly for administrative costs.
“This is a racket what these guys are doing,” the younger Penna said. “It’s just a bill-churning outfit.”
Ayerle expressed a similar sentiment, noting Metz’s administrative fees and the volume of fees exceed those of most firms.
“These bills, for the level of work that’s going on here, are out of line,” he said. “I would think long and hard before I went ahead and did anything else in Upper Dublin.”
Brown’s story is a similar one.
Brown claimed he had “four documented fraudulent claims,” which he didn’t have to pay, such as 3.5 hours to type a letter, but that “every month” he was charged by Metz “two to three hours to review the file.”
According to township records, Brown paid Metz $24,541 between May 2008 and December 2009.
In fact, Metz fees have caused Brown to cancel his construction plans after eight years, he said.
After receiving subdivision approval in 2009, Brown said he was told in order to record the deed, he would have to post $35,000 in escrow and pay Metz $7,800 to review the plans and for inspection, in addition to a charge by the solicitor and other legal fees, bringing the total to $44,000 to record the deed.
“I would have spent $144,000 without having put a stone down,” Brown said. “I can’t afford to record the deed; they’ve won,” he said, adding his current plan is to sell the property.
Metz officials said they do not feel their administrative fees are excessive.
“The quarter-hour increment is much less” than other firms charge, Wert said.
Wert said maintaining a digital archive of all files, distributing copies to necessary parties and other duties take “time and energy,” and it also keeps the building process moving.
An ‘abuse of power’
With all these problems contributing to “the Metz factor,” the builders all said they feel Metz has clearly overstepped its bounds and something has to be done to control the firm’s billing and inspection processes.
“There’s no real checks and balances,” the Montgomery County builder said, noting while Metz watches builders, there’s no one in place to oversee Metz.
The state Municipalities Planning Code, however, does provide a route for builders to appeal fees. They can appeal a bill to the municipality, and if an agreement cannot be reached within 30 days, the two sides can select an arbitrator. If they cannot agree on an arbitrator within 20 days, the courts will appoint one.
“If someone wants to take their right to challenge the bills, please do it,” Leonard said. “The reason people don’t appeal it is because they don’t have the facts to support a complaint.”
“If it’s an honest-to-God mistake, I’m sorry, and I’ll correct it,” Wert said, noting he has revised bills several times in the past.
This process, the Montgomery County builder said, puts the burden on the builders, noting most do not appeal because they fear reciprocity from the engineer if they do so.
“To say I have a desire for retribution, I don’t think that’s the way I work,” Wert said.
The group of builders maintains Metz’s billing practices are outrageous, going beyond what should be accepted from a township-appointed consultant.
“It’s just not right what they [the township] let Metz do with these bills,” Ayerle said.
“This is just blatant, blatant stealing money,” the younger Penna said. “This is so ridiculous and egregious.”
“To me, it’s an outrageous abuse of power,” the Montgomery County builder said. “Other townships are much more reasonable. Metz is the outlier.”
Metz officials say taking heat from builders is nothing new, but they are just doing their job.
“We’re not popular; I understand that,” Wert said. “It doesn’t matter to me. I just want it done right.”
Staff writer Linda Finarelli contributed to this story.
Thomas Celona can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you may comment on this story below.