Finessing the permit process

Call it a quagmire, a minefield or an obstacle course, the pathway to getting all the necessary permits for a building project can be – uh – complicated. No one knows this better than rural builders.

For the sake of continued success in business, the builder’s mental health and quashing those raging stomach ulcers, one has to learn to navigate the process of getting all the paperwork to fly the right way. Keeping local authorities, clients, subcontractors and their own crews happy and on schedule is no small feat.

“Quagmire” is Steve Nikkel’s word for it. In business northeast of Detroit since 1972 and building homes since 1989, Nikkel’s Orchard Construction seems to have gotten the handle on dealing with lining up the go-aheads that can present some pretty tough obstacles to getting the job started – and finished – on time.

“It’s not that difficult if you get the right information,” Nikkel says. “The variables seem to be people. Building inspectors interpret codes differently, but the code is not supposed to be open to interpretation.”

Nikkel believes he’s got a good handle on the International Building Code (IBC) and that should enable one to submit good quality designs, with drawings and all the supporting information and get the permits. The problem, he says, is that there are so many local ordinances that you have to educate yourself on each jurisdiction and that’s where it gets sticky.

Nikkel’s pal and fellow builder, Tim Little of Little Construction Inc. in Mount Holly, N.J., says, tongue-in-cheek, “It’s hard not to be cynical. Sometimes, I think, some of the people in the process have to say ‘no’ to justify the job actually existing. If they said ‘yes’ all the time, we wouldn’t need them.”

Little expands on that radical notion by adding, “If you employ a design professional, an architect, and he has his license on the plans, then the permit process should be quick. But the State has added a layer that checks to see that the professionals know what they are doing.” And the process gives local control to the town or city.

People hired to review plans, Little says, are overworked. The process is tedious for the reviewer, who starts at the point where someone else has already thought through the entire plan. Then the reviewer has to figure it all out again. The best plans, he says, have a notes section to guide reviewers through the logic.

While he respects the work reviewers are required to do, he concedes that not all have as much construction background as might be helpful.

“Some have been doing it a long time. That’s who I want to deal with – not the reviewer who is “green,” but not the sharpest either – someone in the middle who doesn’t ask too many questions, doesn’t nitpick. I want to get off the dime and start to build. I’m not saying I want to be unsafe or incorrect, but sometimes the waiting has to end.”

Ordinance wars
Where things can hang up, Nikkel says, is at the local ordinance level, where regulations can prohibit certain types of buildings. “Some guy doesn’t like blue buildings,” he says, laughing. “It happens.” Other times, builders might run afoul of local planners who are so conservative about land use that they frown on nearly everything.

“One (job) we’re doing now took two years,” Nikkel says. It involves a county engineer who is against development, so he declared every job a wetland and we had to get independent surveys to determine that it’s not a wetland. That kind of thing slows development.”

Of course, there are myriad legitimate objections and cautions – zoning, soil erosion concerns, right-of-way, engineering requirements, wetland issues, environmental quality questions, run-off, and endless water questions. Issues that cross town-county-state jurisdictions present other levels and layers of permissions and scrutinies. “It gets complicated, depending on the locale and the water,” says Nikkel. With his proximity to the Great Lakes, water takes on extraordinary focus.

Keeping the process flowing, however, means staying on top it, starting with allowing plenty of time to work ones’ way through the system.

“Everyone starts the process too late.” Little observes, and any hold-up bogs down the whole process. Customers want it next month, but you can’t get permits for 30 days. There’s at least two weeks to get documents to a township, 10 days or two weeks each time to look at and process them. If it’s complicated, as in a full turnkey commercial project, it can take six months, then another 60 days for review. On the other hand, an “easy” project, like an ag building, can see a 30-day turn-around.

The best defense, both men agree, is a good education. You need to know what you need to know.

Little says it’s important to have all the documents at hand so that reviewers have roof truss drawings, architect prints, state forms, building/fire/plumbing/electrical forms all in order, sealed and filled out properly.

“Documents are key, so have the proper documents in your files,” says Little. You can’t start until all the zoning is cleared, so solve any issues prior to when the review person sees them and you won’t waste their time.”

“We do all that in-house before we go to the entity,” Little says. “It’s a fair amount of work, but we have streamlined the system. It’s repetitive, filling out the same forms again and again, but still there are nuances. You can’t mass-produce forms.”

Sometimes, there are background facts that need to be ferreted out. Nikkel recalls being stymied by a 14-month process because he didn’t know that the county was trying to get an easement for a future six-foot storm sewer.
In the interim, however, Little’s client was “dead in the water” while others worked out their disagreements. Little hung tough as the negotiations went forward, working for his client who ended up getting “a good deal” that included a parking lot and sewer fees paid.

Sometime, it’s who you know

Trite as it sounds, says Nikkel, “It’s not what you know but who you know. Sometimes it’s a political issue. Get the right people on your side and see how fast things follow.”

Networking is crucial. “Be on good terms with building inspectors. Be on a first-name basis with township and county representatives, commissioners, state senators,” Nikkel advises. He draws the line at calling it “influence,” but he says that when misunderstandings crop up, a phone call from an official might be all it takes to clear up a snag.

“It’s very important to have (good) relationships,” Little adds. Sour ones can “delay you by sending back applications for one i not dotted, one t not crossed. They can do it multiple times. In New Jersey, they have 21 days to turn out a first review letter. If the plan reviewer finds three mistakes, they can sent it back for corrections.” Then the clock starts over at 21 days.

And while anyone hates to think that officials might hold grudges, it’s best to avoid the inference in the first place. “Do it all by the book,” Little says. “The code is so intricate, so lengthy, that plan reviewers have their lists of ways to delay, if they wish.”

Nikkel keeps in mind that building inspectors and local officials like to keep on good terms with contractors, too. It makes everyone’s lives easier as they go about their jobs.

On your part, it can’t be anything but business, Little emphasizes. “Don’t assume it’s personal. Be patient, professional. You can’t lose your temper. If you lose it a little bit, you lose it a lot. You go way down the list.”

While it takes time to establish the relationship, it’s just as important to establish a good track record and built up credibility with authorities. “They know we pay attention to detail,” Little says of his company, noting how valuable that is to his reputation.

“The plan review to get a permit does not trade on my name – they know we deliver full sets of prints, specs, all properly filled out – but they still have to do a full review, despite what our name is,” Little says. And if the design person that he employs is inexperienced and makes mistakes, plan reviewers are going to pick up on that weakness, too,
Everyone’s got war stories

Not that it always goes smoothly for anyone.

All in all, this is a learning experience, says Nikkel. Sometimes things get messed up and all you can do is wait it out.

Take, for example, a stumbling into the unexpected. Nikkel was erecting a horsebarn for an owner who originally stated the land use as agricultural, but later mentioned that she was going to board others’ horses. That change in purpose – opening the building to the public – demanded commercial use permits and she lost her ag exclusion. Right next door was a family whose barn was strictly for their own use, so it was an easy process. In the long run, says Nikkel, the change cost the commercial owner $60,000 more but she got through the process and ended up with a project that was named a 2004 Building of the Year.

Another glitch arose when an auto dealership began planning a new building on its current location and the water department got involved. The permit process was delayed about six weeks until drainage issues were settled, yet in the end, the dealer gained approval and Nikkel was ready to fly through the project as soon as there was a “go-ahead.”

On the other hand, Nikkel once encountered a local official who simply didn’t like pole barns and didn’t want any in the community. Plans called for a small vinyl sided accessory building, says Nikkel, but he was told that no metal clad pole barns were permitted in the township.

“It was like any other garage, but it was post-frame, not on a conventional foundation,” says Nikkel. “I told the inspector at the counter, upfront, and he signed and gave me the permit. We stated the job.

Soon, Nikkel got word that the inspector wouldn’t go with it, calling the post holes a violation. “I had to get the state inspector to educate the local guy.” The settlement to the dispute demanded a continuous 42-inch footing between posts that we had to dig, pour and then get accepted. It was ridiculous, says Nikkel. “it cost us a couple thousand dollars that we couldn’t recover.”

And all of that comes on the heels of projects where all the paperwork seems to be in order.

Add a variance to the “to do” list and you’re in “la la land,” says Little. You can get hung up for 90 days to two years.”

In all, he continues, “Even when we bring something clean and well done, we can still get one or two items (noted) on a review letter. Here comes my cynical part again – it’s job security for reviewers.”

Be real, be honest
Despite attempts at forging positive relationships, keeping all the paperwork in order, educating yourself and knowing as much as you can, the efforts are moot if you are not a credible businessperson in the first place. One needs a good reputation before one can put that reputation on the line.

Reputation helps acquire other benefits, too, says Nikkel. He’s landed in a respected place with inspectors who sometimes call him to “pick his brain.” And he enjoys a reputation as the builder whom building inspectors recommend to others in the community.

Attributes that help a builder maintain and grow that reputation, he believes, include professionalism and civility at all time. And more than a modicum of finesse.

So, does the process work? “I’ve had lots of conversations (with colleagues) about this,” says Little. “We’ve tried to figure out a way to work differently but I don’t know that we’ve come up with any better system.”

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