Permit Purgatory

We can't offer paradise, but here are ways to cut red tape and avoid permit hell

Permit Purgatory

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Small-business owners deal with government all the time, and it is often time-consuming, but many say applying for a building permit is their biggest headache. “It’s as fun as doing your taxes,” one restaurant owner says. “I’d rather have a root canal – with no anesthesia – than go through the permitting process again,” a storeowner adds.

Most people – including business owners – concede that permitting protects the public from shoddy and dangerous construction. What they object to is the way the rules are enforced. To help smooth this process, Hawaii Business identified the most common problems encountered by small-business owners, contractors and owner-builders. Then we asked businesspeople and government managers for advice on how to avoid those problems. The bottom line: The pain can often be avoided – if you’re prepared. If you still have problems, we want to hear about it; see our short story on Page 110 called “Still Got a Complaint?”

Complaint No.1

The counties’ Departments of Planning and Permitting take forever to review and issue permits. Parking is horrific and the lines are long. I’m a small-business owner and I can’t spend my income-producing time standing in line.

WHAT TO DO: Make sure your building plans are comprehensive; incomplete plans are the most common reason your project is delayed. Also, the DPPs have heard your complaints and say they have improved services. One silver lining in the current economic gloom: the permitting lines are much shorter than during boom years.

WHY & HOW: “Getting a building permit is not like getting your passport,” says David Tanoue, director of the City and County of Honolulu’s DPP. “I always tell people, ‘If we’re reviewing these plans to protect public health and safety, how fast do you want us to do that?’ ”

Tanoue says that whenever a child falls off a balcony or a structure collapses, the first thing the news media does is call DPP to see if it approved the building plans and issued the permits. “The finger gets pointed at us. That’s why we have to do thorough reviews.”

He cites the recent tsunami and earthquake devastation in the Samoas and South East Asia. “A few years ago, we had an earthquake – it was something like a 3.5 (magnitude) – and only one chimney fell down on Oahu. That was the extent of the structural damage.” He attributes that to a strong building code and high industry standards. These standards, says Arthur Challacombe, chief of Honolulu DPP’s customer service office, are comparable to those in most states.

Part of the frustration with permitting likely starts even before any contact is made or paperwork is submitted. “I think people are intimidated by the process so they already assume it’s going to be a negative experience,” says Jody Awana, president of All Building Permit Specialists. Awana remembers when lines would form outside of DPP at 4:30 a.m.

“During the construction boom, the line would be out the door,” she recounts. “That’s when people would really get frustrated, because sometimes they would wait in line for hours only to find out they didn’t have everything they needed. That’s why it’s so important to come prepared.”

Today, customers can avoid long wait times by scheduling an appointment online. If they prefer to come in and pull a number, they can track what number is being served in real time on DPP’s Web site. However, Challacombe says, lines aren’t a problem these days – an indication of a battered construction industry.

The actual queue, or the order in which plans are reviewed, is what normally causes delays, Tanoue says. “Once the plans get onto the reviewer’s desk, the actual review time is relatively short,” he explains. “If the plans are prepared properly, they’re redlined, marked up and returned. But then when you come back for resubmittal, you’re back in line again, so the queue is really what adds to the time.” Bad or incomplete plans take longer to process, so they delay other applications.

“We know people can’t be perfect all the time, but it’s not practical for a company to spend two years designing the project of their dreams and then expect the approval process to be finished in a couple of months,” Tanoue says.

The county’s initial review period varies by project and valuation, and ranges from two full working days for simple jobs, such as retaining walls, to 70 calendar days for projects above $10 million.

BUT: Parking in Honolulu’s municipal lot at Beretania and Alapai streets is still a problem. “You just have to accept it. Parking is a part of the permitting process, at least in Honolulu,” Awana says. “It’s 25 cents for 10 minutes, and don’t even think about coming between 2:30 and 2:45, because that’s when parents come to pick up their kids from the nearby daycare.” Peak hours are between 8 and 10 a.m.

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