Want a Building Permit? Get in Line!
As a Napa Valley practicing architect for over 25 years, obtaining building permits has always been a challenge. Napa City loves to add additional conditions, hefty departmental requirements and sometimes arbitrary interpretations, but it’s the price we pay to live in Paradise.
But the pandemic has only made the process tougher. Napa City has eliminated personnel positions leaving the building department understaffed and overworked. In my opinion, it is top down. This is a way for the Council to slow everything down.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not beating-up on the BD. The City staff is working hard on a shoestring. The building department should be a revenue producer and fully staffed. But it’s more than staffing: the entire process has to change.
Today, if you want a City building permit for a shed, you have to make an appointment two weeks ahead. Once you’re there, the process can still take two months or longer with resubmittals flying back and forth. This takes precious time and slows everything to a snail’s pace.
Napa County and other North Bay building departments have not cut staff. To make a submittal at Napa County, one leaves the plans in a bin for two days, and the process begins. Thousands of trees give their lives for a permit.
In reality, the County has increased their building permit issuance from 947 between March and August 2019 to 1103 permits between March and August 2020. The total permit issuance for the 2019. Was $21 million while the 2020 permit issuance was over $23 million, a 10% increase.
As with most Municipal BD’s, about 30% of all submittals are sent to outside private services. However, these services collect 60-70% of the fees which could stay in the city if they had more staff and better software.
Construction is considered an essential service. Building homes, apartments, granny flats and other service buildings structures are vital for the City’s health and welfare. Slowing down the process and cutting revenue production is a mistake.
There’s no question that the future of permitting will be electronic exchange. E-submittals are already common in other North Bay BDs and encouraged in other City departments. Construction Inspections could be Zoom virtual between field workers and remote inspectors. However, Napa City doesn’t seem interested.
The American Institute of Architects has been working on this for years and the benefits are quick submittal, timely review, ease of tracking and proper data storage. Also:
· Reduced processing time 20% and 50%
· Reduced BD physical trips: today’s necessity
· Services provided 24/7/365 allowing staff to prioritize
· Improved accuracy and increased professional standards for submittals
· Enhanced revenue collection with less staff
· Simultaneous processing by various departments rather than sequentially
· And, of course, less trees destroyed
We all know that the paperless office is a fantasy. This will not be an easy transition. It will take time and boldness of which the City has been reluctant. But as they say, a journey starts with the first step.
Here’s some trivia: the first written building code was by Babylonian King Hammurabi, 175B.C. requiring designers and builders to be responsible for their work, with penalties up to death. Not a bad idea for today.
Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB