A QUICK STORY
It was a cool, gusty morning in downtown Miami when George was standing at the front door of the Miami Beach Building Department, waiting for the receptionist to open the door. It’s been months in the making, and he is now holding what looks like a rolled-up wad of 24×36 paper plans under his arm. But in his heart this wad of paper is the blueprint for his future vision of his brand-new coffee shop concept and the prosperity that it will bring him and his family.
He can’t wait another moment, despite being there for eighteen (18) minutes before they open. Then another few minutes pass, further delaying the opening time before an employee takes his time to turn on the lights and finally unlock the door.
“Good morning!” George exclaimed with over-enthusiasm for this early in the morning. “I’m here to submit my plans for review!” The receptionist slaps a permit application form on the counter, “Please complete this form, and make sure you fill in the general contractors license. We’ll need an $8,000 check made out to the City of Miami Beach, and make sure you have your energy calculations!”
“Woah, wait, energy what? and a check for how much?”
George was blindsided and stunned. His excitement just turned into frustration. He is regrettably replaying the conversation he had several months back about declining the permitting services, knowing that submitting plans was just filling out an application and calling the Building Department regularly to keep it pushed along.
It’s sad to say, but cases like what George experienced happen every day. The surprise, shock, unexpected delays, and disappointment when trying to get plans through the Building Department is just a common reality. There is no doubt the process SHOULD be easier, but the reality is it’s just not!
Not to mention, in the business of building development, time is money. Delays cost money, investors and banks expect schedule certainty, and there are ambitions that just can’t wait. Nobody has time to waste.
Permitting building plans can be confusing and disorienting. Building departments seem to always be changing their process, and to make matters worse, there are inconsistencies depending on whom you get to answer the phone. The list of difficulties goes on and on. Time and time again it is difficult to keep up with all of these requirements, even if working with the same agencies on a consistent basis.
What we’ve found is that if a strategy is employed and properly executed, the process to permitting a set of building construction documents has a much better likelihood of success.
In this article we will share the approach that we have honed over the years. We like to refer to it as our permitting process “secret-sauce”. It’s a recipe that can be adjusted for slightly different flavors of building departments and types, but all in all, it’s a strategy that can hopefully help save a lot of heartburn.
For those that are adventurous enough to take on the endeavor of permitting themselves, we have simplified the approach into five (5) separate steps, each packed with considerations, explanations, checklists, and more.
This article will go through the numerous steps involved, and can aid in the proper planning and execution of the permitting process.
UP-FRONT RESEARCH IS HUGE
To reduce surprises that could present themselves along the way, it is beneficial to do some up-front homework. Performing research/due diligence is a great way to kick start the process and assist in setting up projects for success. We have found that the earlier in the process this step can be started, the more likely one will find themselves better prepared when the time comes to submit for permit review. Even as early in the project as the Schematic Design/Design Development phase of the construction articles (CDs), this research could be useful. A common pitfall is not doing this upfront homework and just “winging it”.
But where do we begin?
To start, it is helpful to have a list of specific questions to ask the reviewing agencies that are pertinent to the project. Interplan has example code and permit investigation report templates that are used for many different types of projects, and they can be customized based on specific scopes of work and client needs. The specific code and permit investigation reports are so important because they can help identify items that could later affect progress if these items are not uncovered early on in the process. For sake of this article we can call these items the “Big Rocks (or Items of Importance (IOI))”. These are the large , expensive, show stoppers/red flags that can crush our architecture and engineering plans if we don’t address them early on. Depending upon how extensive the scope of work is for the project, it is recommended to perform what we call a Site Investigation Report (SIR). A SIR is a thorough and comprehensive report which details the steps, costs, time frame, and all of the “Big Rocks” which exist and must be understood before one proceeds with the purchase and development of a commercial piece of property. Again, Interplan has customized code and permit investigation report templates for anything from small interior tenant fit-out scopes of work to brand new ground up construction projects.
The first action to start with is to contact the property appraiser by phone or visit their website to search the address of the property so that the proper jurisdiction can be determined. A common pitfall is just assuming the proper jurisdiction is the City in which the project is located based on the address. This can lead to more frustration if all of the up-front research is done for the incorrect jurisdiction. The property record card can be obtained from the appraiser’s website (typically at the County level, but in some states like California and Michigan for example, this information is a little more difficult to locate due to local and state regulations). Some projects (tenant build-outs) that are located within strip centers may also be difficult to locate by the address and may have to be searched by using the “map search” function on the property appraiser’s website, which is then cross referenced with a Google map. Most agencies have what is called a Geographic Information Mapping System (GIS) that will aid in this endeavor of locating the address. Once the property record card is located, sometimes the jurisdiction is clearly identified, but other times it is not. A call to the City or County is recommended for proper verification as there have been cases where the property record card listed the incorrect jurisdiction.
PLANNING AND ZONING (P&Z)
Another important step is to then contact the Planning and Zoning Department. In some jurisdictions these are separate Departments. There’s a Planning Department and then a separate Zoning Department; in other jurisdictions they are combined. To confuse matters even more, there are even jurisdictions that do not have a Planning or a Zoning Department at all, and everything falls under the Building Department where someone at the jurisdiction just wears many hats. When there is a Planning and Zoning Department, these departments typically handle and maintain the following: Future Land Use (FLU) and Zoning Maps, subdivision or lot split information, Special Exceptions, Conditional Uses, Master Plan/Planned Unit Development (PUD) information, rezoning, variances, and the site plan approval process. Checking in with either of these Departments to verify that the property is properly zoned for the intended use, especially if it is a specialty retail use (i.e. swim school, doggy day care, spa/wellness, etc.), is highly recommended.
If the property is not properly zoned for the intended use of the proposed project, this can be a major setback. Getting a change of use in zoning is no walk in the park. In most cases, it will require a Rezoning to modify the zoning map (which requires multiple public hearings). In some instances it could require a Future Land Use Map Modification, which requires a Comprehensive Plan Amendment (again, multiple public hearings required), and realistically can take three to six (3-6) months for a rezoning and six to twelve (6-12) months for a Comprehensive Plan Amendment. Another kicker, this step typically would have to be completed before any building plans could be submitted for review, which adds even MORE time to the process and can push the construction start date significantly — a major Big Rock!
In addition the Planning and Zoning Departments can share resources and information related to setbacks, limitations on building height, architectural design criteria, Floor Area Ratios (FAR), and multiple other items that again can be useful during the design phase. Imagine the design team completing the entire set of construction articles (CDs) to find out that the building is six (6) inches too tall, and a complete redesign from the architectural, structural, and Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing (MEP) teams would need to go back to the drawing board. No thanks! Getting Planning and Zoning information up front and holding that information close to the heart during those design phases is extremely critical.
OTHER REVIEWING AUTHORITIES
In addition to the Planning and Zoning Department, it is wise to start finding out about all other outside agencies that may require a review of the building plans, as this will aid in setting realistic time frames for the construction start date. Additionally, once a better idea of what agencies will require a review is established, there will be more clarity on what information should be addressed and provided within the construction articles (CDs). This helps to make sure those reviews go smoothly, limiting review comments, especially since there can be a plethora of outside agencies involved in the approval process that must be identified upfront, which in turn can depend upon the scope of work and location of the project.
Typically we find asking the Planning and Zoning or Building Department contact is the best place to start in determining the agencies that require a review to aid us in any other agencies that they will require approval from prior to the issuance of a building permit. We do know that certain States will require outside agency approvals just based on our years of experience. For instance, any project in the State of Indiana will require a Construction Design Release (CDR) from the State of Indiana’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS: Building Plan Review). Any project in the State of Wisconsin (unless a major City like Green Bay or the like) will require approval from the State of Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (WIDSPS) for Building, Mechanical and Plumbing (it varies based on the specific scope of work). Any project in Texas that has a cost of construction $50,000 or greater will require registration and approval from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation for accessibility, and a Texas Architectural Barriers Online System (TABS) Number is required to input onto the building permit application for the jurisdiction (TDLR TABS – Login).
HOW MUCH IS THIS PERMIT GOING TO COST?
This is a common question, the permit fees are often based on a number of different factors. An estimated cost of construction or the square footage for the project are usually common items needed to estimate any plan review and permit fees that will be required. Fee schedules are often available on most jurisdictions’ websites to aid in calculating ahead of time so that a budget can be set. What about impact fees? Wait, what is an impact fee? Impact fees (or sometimes even called capacity fees) are fees that are usually assessed, for instance, if a retail establishment is being modified into a restaurant. A restaurant is a more intense use and would likely have more of an impact on the city’s or county’s roads, water and sewer system, etc. Road/Traffic or sometimes called Mobility impact fees can be the most expensive. For tenant build-outs these fees are usually not a factor. However, if it is a first-generation space in a new shell building, the developer could have only paid a retail rate for the impact fees. If the new tenant is to be a restaurant, a difference would have to be paid to the jurisdiction before the tenant will receive a building permit. This could be a huge surprise (BIG ROCK) if it is not uncovered early on in the process (like say at the counter when picking up that building permit. “You need how much money to issue my building permit?”). Another common pitfall to avoid if at all possible. It is wise to flush out all possible fees that are required to enable the project to get under construction, so you can be prepared as best as possible as to what expenses will be associated with your project.
Did you know codes change on a regular basis? How do you know what code relates to your project? What if codes change in the middle of the drawing development or construction?
These are all common questions. In this step we will answer those questions and help determine the codes applicable to the project. It is imperative to have a clear knowledge and understanding of the codes to save precious time in the plan review process and avoid potentially numerous rounds of comments from multiple departments. It is helpful to ask when doing the upfront research if codes are expected to change within the next six (6) months so that the design team can be conscious of the time frame and modify the construction articles (CD’s) accordingly. Some jurisdictions also have specific code amendments or local code requirements that are pertinent to be aware of. The City of Altamonte Springs in Florida, for example, requires ALL commercial buildings (no matter the size) to have a fire sprinkler system. YIKES!
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Once all of the pertinent information is gathered for the proposed project, the information (as well as added articles and exhibits) is all inputted into a single article so that it can be referred back to constantly throughout the process by all parties involved (i.e. owner, real estate, business partner, design team, engineers, etc.). As previously mentioned, Interplan has a plethora of specific checklists that we have built throughout the years with common questions that we have found helpful to ask upfront that prepares us for a successful approach to the permitting process.
For additional information on Interplan’s expertise with Permitting and Due Diligence, please contact us at 407.645.5008 or via email at [email protected]