3 Tips to a Faster Permit Process

Business start-up or expansion projects often trigger the need for permits from different City divisions/departments. The first two questions people ask after, “Which permits do I need?” are “How much do they cost?” and “How long will it take to get them?”

For most of the permits it issues, the City has estimates based on past practice and current staffing levels. Some projects are more complex than others and thus will take longer than standard estimates. Another factor: the level of experience and preparation of the permit applicant, i.e., you or the person applying for the permit on your behalf.

How can you make the timeline and cost align with the City’s estimates? Here’s the short answer:

  • Use City Resources to Scope Your Project
  • Hire the Right Professionals to Develop the Permit Plans and Manage the Process
  • Submit Complete Plans Stamped by a Licensed Design Professional

Read on for the long answer…and to learn why these fast permit tips make a difference.

Use City Resources to Scope Your Project

The City of Petaluma offers several free resources to help people identify which permits, inspections, and fees will be involved and how they will affect their project. This information is essential in developing a realistic project timeline and budget.

Open Counter (petaluma.opencounter.com): This web-based tool asks questions about your project and, based on your answers, provides a list of the permits and fees triggered. Use this tool as early in the process as possible—even before you start looking for space.

Development Review Committee (DRC): This is a regularly-scheduled meeting where City staff from multiple departments discuss and review commercial projects. You can request to attend a meeting so that you can receive feedback on your project idea and/or plans. This resource works best when you have a specific space in mind and have plans to route to staff a week before the scheduled meeting. See our blog post on the DRC or contact Planning.

Pre-application Meeting: The City Plans Examiner is available on a case-by-case basis to meet with design professionals before they submit plans. The purpose of this meeting is to help the design professional fine tune details to ensure the plans address the codes in ways that are acceptable to the City. This meeting is appropriate when you’re ready to submit plans. It’s not a brainstorming session, but rather a time to ask specific questions and a quick review. Contact the Plans Examiner to make an appointment.

Hire the Right Professionals to Design and Manage the Process

It can be tempting to try a do-it-yourself approach when it comes to designing or managing your project, especially when you’ve got a shoestring budget.

Not a good idea.

State Building codes are complex and written in a special language most ordinary people (even smart ones) don’t understand.  Codes also change frequently. Even experts don’t always get things right the first time. Do you really want to spend your time figuring this out when you have a business to run?

Perhaps worse than no professional help, however, is bad professional help.  If the professional you hire lacks experience with your type of project or does not understand the City’s process and timelines, your project will take longer than it needs to.

So, before you hire a design professional, make sure you do your due diligence. Invest the time in interviewing several architects or engineers and evaluate based on experience not only with a similar project but also in Petaluma.  When you’ve got your short list, be sure to check multiple references. Listen for red flags like, “The City made it difficult,” or “The City made it expensive.” That could indicate a project that was not managed properly on the client side.

Submit Complete Plans Stamped by a Licensed Design Professional

The City of Petaluma requires that plans for all commercial projects be stamped by a licensed design professional, such as an architect or engineer. The permit technicians plans examiner who staff the Building Counter have been directed to accept only plans that are stamped by a design professional. If you hand your plans to Building Counter staff, and they see that that the plans are not stamped, they will not accept them.

In addition to being stamped, your plans should be complete. You’re probably asking yourself, “Why would anyone submit incomplete plans?”

The truth is that some design professionals submit incomplete plans to make a client deadline or because they honestly think that’s the fastest way to get the City’s input. Actually, it’s the slowest way—and it will cost you, not the design professional, money in the end.

Consider this: it typically takes about six weeks from the time a plan is submitted to the time the plan is returned. Incomplete plans mean an automatic second review—another six weeks. If the plans again don’t meet the Plan Checker’s requirements, you’ve got another round. Pretty soon you’ve invested six months…and you haven’t even gotten your permit!

It’s better to spend a little extra time on the front end, getting feedback from the DRC or contacting the Plans Examiner to discuss how to deal with an issue, and submit plans that will make it through the process in one round.

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