Frustrations with getting building permits issued have boiled over, with some contractors saying they’re being told it could take three months to have one issued.
The consequences have led to huge uncertainty as to when construction projects can begin, layoffs and workers leaving town in search of work.
Last Thursday, June 1, about 30 builders, contractors and developers met at Rona to discuss the issue. Mayor Mark McKee and councillor Gary Sulz were in attendance. The meeting was organized by Bobby McLelland, the manager of Rona, who heard many stories about the issue and decided to do something about it.
“My part was to get some dialogue started, let the guys get heard, as opposed to having one-on-one meetings on the sidewalk,” said McLelland.
I spoke to McLelland, four builders and two developers about the meeting and issues being faced with getting permits at city hall. I also talked to city staff, McKee and Sulz. I heard concerns about under-staffing and excessive demands being made by the city’s planning department that have resulted in a backlog of permits waiting to be issued.
Some of the concerns were not secrets — particularly the fact the department has been understaffed since the start of the year, when Dean Strachan left his position as manager of development services. It took three months to bring in his replacement, Nigel Whitehead. Meanwhile, assistant planner Chris Selvig left on paternity leave two weeks ago, leaving Whitehead as the sole planner in the department until a new one is hired.
As well, the city only has one building inspector, Marty Herbert, who is responsible for reviewing plans and conducting inspections.
“We all agree they are seriously understaffed in the planning department,” said Roger Kessler of Kessler Custom Homes. “There’s definitely a need for someone with knowledge of plans and the code. Perhaps they bring in an engineer on a temporary basis to get rid of some of the backlog, to actually go and review some of these plans and identify where they do require more scrutiny and get through it.”
McKee noted part of the issue was Strachan’s abrupt departure at the end of 2016, which caught the city by surprise and left them short-handed.
In an interview, Whitehead said they were telling builders it was taking four to six weeks to issue a building permit. He didn’t think this delay was abnormal. “I’ve worked for a number of busy small cities and this is a relatively normal occurrence for spring rush,” he said. “Is it what the development community here is used to? It seems like its not. Would I like processing times to be shorter? Absolutely.”
He added the backlog was on the planning side and not the inspection side and he was working to get someone hired as soon as possible.
Several people I spoke to criticized the city for not ramping up staffing months ago, when a busy building season was being forecast. They noted several major projects, like the Ramada Inn, Mackenzie Village, Mountain View Elementary, as well as a number of single-family homes, were known to be set for construction this summer and the city should have prepared for the workload.
Strachan noted as much in his year-end report for 2016 — the last report he sent to council before taking a job in Summerland. “With several commercial and multi-family projects scheduled to proceed this year, along with an anticipated further increase in the number of single family dwellings to be constructed, development services is anticipated to have a further increase in activity in 2017,” he wrote.
In that report, Strachan wrote that the average time to issue a building permit last year was 10 days, but it could take up to 120 depending on the application and the time of year.
A big issue raised by builders was the way permits are processing. I was told the city is expecting plans for an entire build to be submitted and approved before a project can start. Builders can’t even clear a lot and dig a hole for the foundation without an approved building permit.
“What it’s done is it’s bottle-necked the permit because they have to review an entire project,” said Greg Hoffart of Tree Construction.
Another concern was builders who have plans that have been reviewed by engineers are being asked for more information, details and changes. I talked to one developer, who asked not to be identified, who said he’s had professional architects and engineers prepare his plans, but the city is still asking for new requirements. “It’s been a unique experience to have this level of delay and frustration,” he said.
Derek Lammie of Wellwood Construction suggested reputable builders who engage with architects and engineers before applying for permits should have their approvals fast-tracked.
“They’re done correctly and the city should be able to recognize that and have a shorter review of that permit,” he said. “These are professionals you’re dealing with that know what they’re doing and you should come to a point of trusting them and know they’re wanting to do their job as best as possible and do it right.”
Hoffart said one of the big concerns was not knowing how long things it will take to have a permit issued. He said that if he knows it will take three months, he can plan for that, but that’s not the case. “The clincher is just not knowing how long it is for a permit. If it takes three months, they need to say it takes three months. It needs to be widely known and they need to maintain that,” he said.
The delays are having economic repercussions. Scott Roberston, the owner of Absolute Contracting, said he’s lost staff and money over delays. “We have a particular weather window to be productive and this has taken a large chunk out of it,” he said.
Mayor Mark McKee, who attended the meeting with councillor Gary Sulz, said he was happy to hear the concerns of the contractors and will be taking them to a special meeting of council. “I’m glad that I went and listened to the challenges that the contractors have and I think if there’s any opportunity that we as a city can be doing things better and more efficiently and helping these guys get to work and build businesses and houses is what we should be looking at,” he said.
When asked what solutions the city is looking at to address the problem, he said they’re hiring another planner and are looking at bringing in someone on a temporary basis to help deal with the backlog of building permits.
“We’re in an era where every town is busy,” he said. “Not that I’m happy with it, but it’s not uncommon for communities to be in this era of lots of applications and not enough resources to get through them.”
Whitehead said the development services department has issued 43 building permits so far this year and has another 30 in the queue. “Right now we’re in an all hands on deck situation. We’re churning through the backlog,” he said. “It seems the applications are coming in slower than they were a month ago, which means we can start turning more out.”