Thursday, August 6, 2009

    The long version of the permitting rant

    After weeks of gnashing our teeth, we finally got a permit from Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 29. The road leading there was a long and painful one that started many weeks prior.

    We initially sketched out a pretty ambitious and aggressive design, permitting and construction schedule. Part of that is because we just want a new house to live in, and the other part is because the duration of our construction financing is finite. The bank put a timer on our construction loan that will expire in mid-January 2010 regardless of how finished we are with the house at that point. We knew this from the moment we closed on the lot back in March, which is why we did a whirlwind design phase with an eye toward submitting a permit application June 4 and construction beginning in early July.

    Design was a blast and moved along quickly. We ate up a couple of contingency weeks fairly early in the design process due to vacation and travel scheduling conflicts, and we ate up another week or so with missed connections for engineering/contractor/architect/owner discussions. That pushed our target plans-submittal date to about June 15.

    A quick note about how you get a residential permit in Salt Lake City: your contractor must submit full plans for your house. Various city departments review those plans, either stamp them "approved" or note revisions they'd like to see you make on the plans. If they require revisions (and every city department that reviewed our plans did require revisions from us), then you have to satisfy their comments, re-submit the relevant portions of your plans and wait for that golden "approved" stamp.

    On June 15, we tried to submit plans but did not have a complete enough set. We were missing a mechanical plan and a detailed engineering plan. It had been a while since our architects had gotten a permit for a house in Salt Lake City, and last time around the city allowed deferred submittals for a lot of those things. Not so any longer. The city turned us away on June 15, and we spent the next 8 days scrambling to get a more complete set so that we could at least log our permit application with the city and get the process started. (We were able to log our plans with public utilities in June 15, though -- which makes the end of this story all the more frustrating. Oh, but wait for it...)

    We finally were able to log our plans on June 23 (already a stressful moment because we still had a June 4 deadline in our minds). Then the waiting -- the horrible, horrible waiting -- began.

    The first comments we got back were from the city's zoning plans reviewer on July 1 -- a quick turn-around. We had a few mistakes on the plans (including an oversight on the building height) that she caught for us, and she also made a comment to the effect of, I need to see the grades on your lot in order to properly process these plans. We had not ordered a topographical survey (cost: $5,000 or more) because 1) the city did not require it, 2) we could not afford it, and 3) the lot we're building on is relatively flat. But us vouching for the lot's relative flatness wasn't going to cut it for the city. They wanted numbers and grades.

    How were we going to get grades? How much would it cost? Did we even have the correct property lines? Oh #$%^, we didn't order a property line survey -- can we even build on this lot?!? Would the city believe us if we shot our own grades? Would they make us get an expensive topographical survey even though their code didn't require it? Could they even do that? How much would we have to redesign the house? How long would that take? How much would that cost? What is the contractor willing to help with? What are the architects willing to help with? What can we do ourselves? How are going to pay for this? How far off schedule will this put us? How much more review will zoning require after our resubmittal?

    And so on, and so on.

    We ended up ordering a property line survey (cheaper and less involved than a full topographical survey) and shooting grades on the corners of the property and the planned corners of the house to satisfy the city requirement for numbers. Based on those numbers, we discovered a bit of fall in the property (the street end of our lot is higher than the alley end of out lot), which necessitated a redesign of the first floor (farewell 9-foot ceilings -- we never knew ye), the site drainage plan, and the footings/foundation plan. It has also necessitated a redesign of our mechanical system since our previous solution for air conditioning will no longer fit on our first floor. Lots and lots of ripples.

    Remember public utilities? Remember how they got our plans on June 15? Well...three weeks later, Tai finally made a casual and extremely friendly phone call to inquire about the status of our application review. Oh, those plans? they asked. Those plans are still on the pile, but we'll get to it. And what's more -- you'll be lucky when we get to it when we do. (I'm paraphrasing the general front-desk attitude at the public utilities contracts counter. Public Utilities is known the city over for a lack of interest in public service.)

    We got the public utilities review a few days later and again scrambled to make changes based on their revisions. The changes we made based on the first review didn't pass, so we had to go back and make even more changes. Complicating this entire process was a short week due to a state holiday, a sick public utilities plans reviewer, and the unwillingness of anyone else in the department to look at our plans in this reviewer's absence. Each of these tiny little conditions would have been manageable in sequence, or spread over a long period of time, but compacting them into each other and on top of each other created a stress that I have a hard time describing. There's nothing like knowing that your hopes and dreams hang in the balance of a couple of ornery and over-worked city employees -- it's terrifying.

    Meanwhile, we got comments back from a building plans reviewer. Our only complaint there was that submitting on June 23 instead of June 15 put us at the bottom of a pile of applications that piled up on that reviewer's desk while she was on summer vacation for a week. I kid you not: our house-building process is now delayed because a city employee went on vacation without anyone covering for her. Other than that, her comments were pretty straight forward and required only a few changes.

    We had pushed, pulled, prodded, and shoved this process nearly to its bitter end last week. We had submitted all our review comments and received approval from zoning and building departments. Public utilities was all that's left. We satisfied their requirements and were hallucinating a building permit hovering over our heads when the public utilities plans reviewer said, "oh, so has anyone talked to you about a fee schedule?" (Hence, this rant.)

    Two very depressing days later -- I did not believe that we were ever, ever going to get a building permit...only that we would continue halving the distance between us and the permit without ever actually reaching our destination -- we finally satisfied the myriad requirements for a permit. And, got our permit. (Which, as it turns out, are two different things.)

    So, here's what I have learned from this bruising process:
    • If you're new to this, go to the city and get a punch list of what you'll need (we didn't and were immediately sorry).
    • Have an explicit conversation about the city punchlist with your architects/engineers/contractors.
    • No request from the city is too small. They WILL withhold your permit until they are satisfied.
    • Sometimes the city will make you do stuff that is not required by law.
    • All the time the city will make you do stuff that is required by law.
    • City employees will screen your phone calls and not call you back.
    • City employees might, if you're lucky, return your emails.
    • If they say they want the plans redrawn, then it means they want the plans redrawn.
    • Keep the controlled substance of your choice handy -- you will need it.
    • Public utilities needs some nice pills.
    • Venting helps.
    So, thanks for listening/reading/sending cookies/your moral support. And thank whoever you thank that we are finally underway and building. This is such a nicer place to be.

    1 comment:

    Alison said...

    well hot damn. that sounded like it sucked big time AND was unnecessarily complicated and agonizing. i'm glad that part is over with!