By AnneMarie "Bemmie" Eustace
Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet that addresses all permitting issues unilaterally on a nationwide basis.
While individual municipalities share the common goal of reviewing building-permit applications and granting approval to those that meet the jurisdiction's guidelines, the methodology varies significantly from state to state and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Hence, the notion of "permit expediting" remains an elusive concept - there are so many components that impact the process. To complicate matters further, jurisdictions have independent mindsets when it comes to establishing procedures; there are no special privileges handed out at the door.
Developers typically define permit expediting as a means to significantly reduce the time required to obtain approvals, often hoping to cut the time in half. This is simply not the case. It's unrealistic to think that expediters might simply wield the power to cut corners in an effort to gain time. It's best to be armed with the facts, knowing that permit expediting is nothing more than a famous industry misnomer. The only valid method of expediting the permitting process includes a combination of arduous research, timing, process knowledge, and patience.
5 Tips to Expedite the Permitting Process
1: Identify All Outside Agencies Required for Approval
Defining state and county agencies that require approvals outside the local municipality can have a significant impact on determining the fate of a project's timing.
For example, in Louisiana, the State Fire Marshal's approval is required prior to submittal to the local jurisdiction; the same is true of the Department of Labor and Industry in most of Pennsylvania and the Department of Fire and Building Services in Indiana. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation requires separately contracted agencies to review, approve, and inspect for accessibility compliance.
In addition to the state requirement for building plan approvals, many state departments have approval rights for site work as well. If a shopping center is proposed on a state road, then the state Department of Transportation will need to grant permission for the access to the center, as well as for drainage and other impacts to the right of way. Numerous states, such as Florida and Minnesota, require state-level agencies for stormwater drainage approvals in addition to local drainage reviews. Frequently, if the project is proposed within a certain distance from a coastline, other agencies will need to review the plans, such as Ocean & Coastal Resource Management in South Carolina. Florida requires the Department of Environmental Protection to approve water- and sewer-line extensions.
Once the required state agencies are identified, other local jurisdictions may also need to approve the plans prior to submittal to the local municipality. For example, in Broward County, FL, the Department of Natural Resources Protection must approve the plans prior to submittal to the local jurisdiction, regardless of whether it is in the county or in an incorporated city.
There can be a myriad of outside agencies involved in the approval process that must be identified upfront, along with an understanding of the timing requirements, in order to expedite construction start schedules. Construction start may be delayed for months if just one required agency approval has been overlooked.
2: Research Applicable Codes and Ordinances
It may be obvious to some, but the common-sense tactic of researching and applying codes pertinent to the project is often overlooked. The widespread use of the model codes has helped standardize prototype building requirements, though local and state jurisdictions can implement additional regulations. For example, Ohio has its own plumbing code, Texas and Florida (among others) have their own accessibility code, and Louisiana and Indiana have their own versions of fire and building codes. There are many local municipalities that have adopted their own versions of the model codes (or supplements to the model codes).
Plan adjustments to incorporate local or state requirements are necessary prior to submittal for approvals. It's imperative to have a clear understanding of the codes to avoid potentially numerous rounds of comments from multiple departments. For example, basic knowledge (such as how the zoning department applies setbacks to double-fronted sites) can have a huge impact on site layout and building orientation. It's a good idea to hold a pre-application meeting with various departments to identify and discuss any code interpretations that have historically been interpreted differently in various municipalities.
3: Understand the Process and Strategize
While outside agencies are specific to a particular discipline, each local municipality - with its own system for processing applications - routes plans internally to various departments for review.
A thorough understanding of this process sheds light on available options and strategies that enable the earliest construction start possible. At first glance, it would appear that if the building and site plans are submitted and reviewed simultaneously, everything would move more quickly.
However, the opposite often proves to be true, contingent, of course, on whether a given municipality accepts separate permit submittals. If submitted together, and if there are any comments or complex issues relevant to the building, the entire construction start could be in jeopardy. If submitted separately as two individual permit applications, the site construction can move forward while the building plan issues are resolved. Employing this time-saving strategy can potentially allow site construction to start weeks before final building approval, though it must be implemented in advance of plan submissions.
4: Submit Complete Packages to All Agencies
One of the most obvious (yet easily overlooked) means of expediting the permitting process is to provide complete submittal packages. There are a wide variety of documents that may be required for different types of submittals. Some agencies have an exhaustive list of documentation to support the application and plans, while other agencies require a simple, one-page application with supplemental information added later in the process as needed. Regardless, it's important to have a firm understanding of the documents required for the submittal, as well as the timing of each submittal component to minimize delays and keep the review process moving forward. There are instances when an act as simple as providing rolled plans vs. folded plans could render the application incomplete.
5: Anticipate General Requirements and Be Ready to Act
Once the plans are submitted, the process must be closely monitored. The applicant needs to react expeditiously to a reviewer's request, anticipating the timing of additional information that may be needed.
For example, in Florida, completing Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) applications is often time intensive, as numerous sections require original signatures, with the utility department typically last to sign off. It won't help (and might hurt) to submit the FDEP application along with the initial application, as it is not needed until the end of the process and will likely be misplaced along the way. If the application is lost in the shuffle, it falls upon the developer to undertake the labor-intensive process all over again, which may delay the final approval by several weeks.
In some jurisdictions, the building department may require shop drawings for truss systems or fire-sprinkler systems prior to plan approval. The applicant will save tremendous time by anticipating the timing of this submittal and being fully prepared to act quickly.
Within the local municipality, each department may have unique requirements. For example, for purposes of timing, it is critical to know if a building department requires that all contractors and subcontractors be named prior to submission of building plans for review. If that information is not gathered prior to submission, the process could be delayed another 3 to 6 weeks while bids are secured, selections are made, and all contractors secure city registrations.
Equality Rules in the Permitting Arena
While the "expediter" can keep plans moving, everyone is still bound by the same rules and regulations within the system. Generally, plans are reviewed on a first-come, first-served basis. After that, flexibility is limited to (and contingent upon) the reviewers in any given municipality.
There are times when a reviewer may make an exception for a minor correction, allowing plans to make it to the top of the pile, as in the case of the correction that requires very limited review time. However, that is not the norm unless there is political pressure from within to do so. In fact, most municipalities will not allow "preferential treatment" and advise against playing favorites. It is important, however, to have a good rapport with reviewers by responding promptly to any questions and quickly securing any additional information requested.
Getting from the permit inbox to the permit outbox as quickly as humanly possible - that's the sum total definition of expediting relevant to permitting. The only sound approach to successfully expediting the review process is to have a firm understanding of the specific requirements and nuances within a given jurisdiction. Anticipating everything that might be needed by specific municipalities and having everything readily accessible will serve the developer well in controlling the time invested in the permitting process.
Trying to navigate around the process or looking for shortcuts will often lead to even longer delays - the risk for error increases when a staff member must address an issue that deviates from the norm. Although it's not possible to go around the process, it is possible to go through the process more efficiently if the proper homework is done upfront. Frequently, an outside consultant who specializes in permitting services and is experienced in navigating the permitting process is considered for such an important task.
AnneMarie "Bemmie" Eustace is director of site development at Orlando, FL-based Interplan LLC (www.interplanorlando.com), an architecture, engineering, interior design, and project management firm. For more information, contact Bemmie via e-mail at (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call (800) 373-5552.