Planning and Building Department: Ally or Adversary?
In every architectural project you will eventually need to obtain a permit. There are several types of permits, including building permits, conditional use permits, health permits, electrical, mechanical, civil, and sprinkler permits, etc. In some cases, like residential remodels, you could obtain a permit “over-the-counter” from a City Planner. You simply make an appointment and take your architectural drawings and present them at City Hall where the Planning, Building and Fire departments look them over on-the-spot. They may make some corrections, or they may approve them. They will require inspections at specific stages during construction. When the project is complete, the Building Inspector will provide a “Certificate of Occupancy”. That’s the easiest scenario.
Some residential projects will require a “variance” because they do not meet the standard requirements for lot coverage, setbacks, height limitations, etc. That’s when you will need to start a back-and-forth process with the Planning Department that may or may not result in a permit for your project. Sometimes the City will require the Owner to appear before the Planning Commission, Architectural Review Board, Historic Advisory Committee, or other advisory body. The meetings are usually rather formal, and follow a set procedure, so proper preparation is essential. The Planning staff member will usually be providing a recommendation for or against approval of your project at these meetings.
At this point, you need to know: Is the City Planning and Building Department my ally or my adversary? Is their goal to help you successfully navigate the permit process or is it to create obstacles to getting an approval? Your approach may depend on the answer to these questions.
Some cities and counties are welcoming to change and economic development. Perhaps they see a project as providing a needed upgrade to a run-down or outdated area. Perhaps they like the increased jobs and tax revenues that development brings. Perhaps they are trying to update their city’s image as being more modern, sustainable, green, or transit-oriented. In this case, their Planning and Building Department will act as facilitators to help projects move along and “jump through the hoops”. They answer questions and provide advice.
Other cities have a reputation for being difficult to build in. Often these are rural or bedroom communities that are not trying to attract any development. They don’t want “McMansions” or “eyesores” or “impactful” projects. They want to retain their “historic character”. These attitudes could signify that the project is not viewed favorably from the outset. Residents sometimes convene groups to oppose a particular project or any type of change in their neighborhood. This anti-change bias filters into the Planning and Building department so deeply that they see their jobs as gatekeepers against any new or nonconforming projects.
You can find out which type of Planning and Building Department you are faced with by talking to neighbors, real estate agents, and owners of new businesses in the area. You can also ask the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the local Chamber of Commerce to speak frankly with you about examples of the success or failure of projects. What can you do if you are faced with an adversarial Planning and Building Department?
Having an experienced architect on your side during the approval process can be critical to your success. It is especially helpful to have an architect that has successfully negotiated many times with the City and has created a certain amount of trust and rapport with the Planners. Planners want to be confident that the project will be “in character” of what has been approved before and is likely to be accepted by committees and commissions, as well as the City Council and the residents in their community. Often the architect will come up with options and “work-arounds” that will meet the intent of the City’s requirements while still meeting the needs of the Owner (their client). Sometimes the architect can just explain how the exception will be mitigated by other factors. In any case, you will need someone who can communicate with the Planner in technical terms that apply to your specific location. If the architect has established a good reputation with your Planning and Building department, your project has a much better chance of being approved.
Another important factor is to not argue or express any hostility toward the permit process. Some people come into the Planning office with such a demanding attitude that the Planner immediately adopts a negative stance. Remember, Planners are paid to make sure things are done the way the City wants them done and to follow Building Codes, zoning regulations, and local ordinances precisely. They don’t make the rules, but they do intend to follow them. If you understand that they are in a position to make or break your project, you can win them over with kindness, respect for their process and a great deal of patience.
At The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects we pride ourselves on developing collaborative relationships in the cities and counties where we work. We are happy to advise you through the permit process. Contact us for more information.
Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc.