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Why does Napa Have 6 Building Departments?

Chris d Craiker AIA


Napa has six municipalities: American Canyon, Napa City, Yountville, St Helena, Calistoga and Napa County. Each has their own departments to for their unique issues. Calistoga‘s public works won’t work for American Canyon and Napa City‘s planning issues are different than Yountville. However, all six have distinct building departments that work off the exact same State and Federal Building Codes. The Codes don’t vary, only the interpretation by each individual jurisdiction.


The Building Codes are there to protect people’s health and safety. They’re not intended to keep a building from totally collapsing in an earthquake or burning to the ground in a fire. Instead, they are designed to extend the time for occupants to escape from disaster. Building codes are also designed to ensure contractors do the right thing during construction, but many things slip through the cracks as we all know.


During the Pandemic, every city and agency lost staff as employees either refused to return from remote working or discovered they just didn’t want to work there anymore. As we all emerged from the Pandemic and construction picked up, staff persons were absent to process plans or issue permits, a chronic problem throughout the State and Nation. To expedite the process BDs everywhere started using outside permit plan check services. These private companies rarely have any connection with the local community and are ‘paid-by-the-word’ so to speak, so multiple pages of plan check comments are returned with unnecessary or complicated requests with less thought about health and safety, and more about the billing cycles. While not all outside plan check companies are the same, getting a building permit only became more difficult.


There’s no question that electronic submittals and plan checking are the future. All jurisdictions and many of their departments are moving forward with E-filing, although each BD is using a different system. While the codes remain the same, the plan check process is different in each municipality. If I were to submit one set of plans to all six BDs, I would get 6 totally different responses even though they’re working from the same codes.


I reached out to each of the six-BDs to see if they were allowing electronic submittals and what platform they were using. What I discovered is there are 6 different E- platforms for collecting and plan checking projects. It’s like using 6 different languages that an architect must learn. Contact each jurisdiction for specifics:


American Canyon uses Laserfiche although it’s not a BD plan-check platform.


Jason Williams, Napa City Chief Building Official, stated they have not yet started accepting plans via email but they plan to use Energov in 2024. Applicants will be able to review the status of their projects online.


Mike Zimmer, Yountville Building Official, notes they take both electronic and over the counter submittals. They use opengov, a more intuitive, easy to use system. Mike noted that since they don’t have a structural engineer on board, like many BDs, projects that require any structural review are sent to outside plan checkers.


Philip Henry, St. Helena Chief Building Official, noted the upgrading of their permit software to eTRAKIT is still in progress. In-person paper submittals and PDFs via email are acceptable.


Claudia Aceves, Calistoga Building Dept, noted they use Citizenserve as an option and still take in-person and email submittals.


Napa County uses CitizenAccess for their electronic plan submittals and do accept limited in-person counter submittals, but once you’ve started with an online submittal, you can’t change.


The real question is how user-friendly are each of these platforms? Our firm has submitted plans to all six jurisdictions, and none are without some glitches that staff could help fix. However, Napa County Building Department has made it so difficult for anyone without a PhD to make a submittal. Numerous on-line descriptions are vague and staff is generally not accessible for questions or support. I don’t know how a housewife can get a permit to move a non-structural wall or a plumber can submit to change plumbing fixtures. A custom home we submitted to the county required 66 sheets and documents to be specifically “book marked “and their titles have to be distinctive as well as all subsequent submittals.


When I asked David Morrison, Napa County Interim County Executive, why it’s so difficult to get a building permit, he had some good points. He noted that, “California has exceedingly micro-regulated the development process.…… such as standards for septic systems, what lightbulbs you can use, the types of plants in your yard, even …….how to dispose of leftovers and demolition material when you’re done”. He is correct that Sacramento changes these requirements every day. But that doesn’t explain the permitting glitch.


While I advocate having one building department for all six jurisdictions, bureaucratic entrenchment will probably never allow that to happen, even though it would save all of the jurisdictions millions of dollars a year.


If they aren’t willing to improve their process, at the very least they should improve their customer service. They should have periodic public outreach meetings for architects, engineers and stakeholders to explain how their processes works and answer questions about their glitches. A few years ago, multiple BDs came together for a very successful meet-up. Since then, there’s been no impetus to do it again. What they forget is, the faster the permit process, the faster the fees and taxes can be collected.


Chris d Craiker

AIA/NCARB

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