Permit Purgatory

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

December, 2009

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.

 

Complaint No.2

The permitting process is so confusing. The county needs to eliminate some rules that hinder small businesses from growing.

WHAT TO DO: Hire a professional router or a third-party reviewer to save time and money.

WHY & HOW: Awana understands the building-permit process both in Honolulu and on Hawaii Island, where she first got into the construction industry. She is a professional router who submits and tracks building plans for residential and commercial clients for a fee, which can range from $250 for a fence permit to $550 for a commercial building permit to alter a store.

“For me, it’s not difficult because I’m familiar with the process,” Awana says. “It’s hard for any beginner to consume all of the information at first, but there are a lot of avenues for help.”

Awana believes the rules can inhibit enterprising small businesses. “The codes and procedures are very strict, but I know they’re necessary because, unfortunately, not everyone has common sense,” she says.

Awana is lucky that the process isn’t easier: “If it was, I wouldn’t have a job,” she jokes. In fact, her best marketing is to encourage first-timers to visit the DPP to get a permit on their own. “Then I kind of just sit back and wait, because most likely they’ll call once they see what’s involved.”

Tanoue admits the process isn’t easy. “It’s complex and it’s expensive for companies to be learning on the spot, especially when the plans need to be approved by multiple agencies. The routers take care of all that for you.”

For basic residential projects, such as extending a living room or renovating a bathroom, Awana has saved clients up to two-and-a-half months. “Time is money,” says the DPP’s Challacombe, who has seen retailers go out of business before they open because they run out of money when permitting is delayed. “Turning to the experts could mean the difference between boom or bust.”

Honolulu is the only county in the state that has a third-party review system, which allows private companies certified by the county to check plans for code compliance in place of the DPP’s reviewers.

Gregory Zabinski, president of Independent Third Party Review, an approved review company, says his staff can shorten the permitting process by one to six months, depending on the project’s complexity. A company could save a lot of money that way, especially if it is paying rent for space that sits unused. Independent Third Party Review ensures building plans meet the city’s architectural, structural, mechanical and electrical codes. Tanoue says other counties are considering third-party reviews.

Maui County offers a Plan Review Waiver process, which issues a permit if a licensed contractor or structural engineer certifies that the plans meet all prerequisites of a building permit. However, the structure cannot be occupied until the applicant shows full compliance with applicable laws. “If used properly, the Plan Review Waiver Process allows small, simple projects to proceed without delay by agency reviews,” says Renee Segundo, a building permit supervisor for Maui’s Department of Public Works.

What’s required can differ from one project to another, Zabinski says. For instance, zoning is much stricter in Waikiki than elsewhere on Oahu. Many involved in the process say permitting is like your income taxes: You can hire a knowledgeable accountant who will file your returns quickly, and possibly get you more money back, or you can do it yourself and risk making costly errors. Most people with something to lose – or gain – will hire a professional.

 

Complaint No.3

Many clerks at DPP seem inexperienced. I often feel like I’m being sent on a wild goose chase by people who are unfriendly and make this process more complicated than it needs to be.

WHAt TO DO: Conduct as much research as possible before going to DPP. Take advantage of online resources and, if you encounter problems with staff, report them.

WHY & HOW: Challacombe says high turnover at DPP was a problem in 2003 during the last construction boom because many building inspectors retired. The city was also just coming off a hiring freeze, so the department was understaffed. Since then, all but one position at the Honolulu office has been filled.

“Like anything else, I do get complaints every now and again but I also get compliments about my staff members when they’ve gone above and beyond what they had to do to help somebody,” Challacombe says. “If the customer doesn’t get the kind of treatment they deserve, I do want to know about it.”

Since 2008, Maui County’s Planning Department has beefed up its staff by adding 10 positions. It has also more than doubled its training budget from 2007.

Tanoue says DPP does a lot of handholding for owner-builders – he calls them “weekend warriors” – who want to save money and handle their own residential permitting. “It’s like the old adage that 15 percent of the people take 85 percent of your time,” he says.

Over the years, Challacombe has seen it all: building plans drawn on paper napkins, customers who haven’t done any research and turn belligerent when asked for project details, and others who try to bend rules to cut costs. When customers aren’t prepared, it usually means they’ll have a bad experience.

Tanoue and Challacombe know about criticisms facing DPP. But they welcome feedback and say they use it to improve the process. “We try as much as we can, and we continue to improve the system, so that we make the process as user-friendly as possible, and we try to put experienced people up front to help people who need assistance.”

Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi is also committed to improving the permitting process. “We have to let our construction industry and private business community know that, if they have permits or projects with the county government that will lead to jobs, we will work to expedite and facilitate the processing of those permits,” he says.

The Honolulu DPP office has two permit information officers who are retired DPP employees and address about 400 to 500 inquiries a week. They can take a quick look at your plans and tell you what agencies will need to review them or where you might face problems. The Kapolei Building Permit Center also processes building, sign and relocation permits.

Awana and Zabinski say the people at the department’s information desk have been a great resource. The DPP also provides checklists for commercial, residential and sign permit applications that explain what information and documents are required.

Your best bet, says Challacombe, is to check DPP’s upgraded Web site, which contains loads of information, will allow you to calculate building permit fees and review the status of existing applications. Customers must fill out an Internet Building Permit Application and are assigned a job number to begin the process. For those without Internet access, DPP has computers on-site. “This alone cuts down at least 15 minutes at the (DPP) counter,” Awana says, referring to the days when clerks manually inputted project details into the system from handwritten forms.

HONline, the city’s e-permit system, also allows you to apply, pay and print building permits for single-family solar, electrical, plumbing, air-conditioning, photovoltaic and fence work entirely online.

Poncho’s Solar Service was one of the first local companies to use online permitting. “We were kind of like the guinea pigs when the city first implemented this new feature a few years ago,” says company secretary Theresa Rhody. Each month, Poncho’s applies for 30 to 60 solar water heater permits. “With the online system, it’s pretty self-explanatory and we don’t have to fight the traffic from Aiea to town, pay for parking or wait in line,” Rhody says.

Permits Issued in August

Honolulu County:1,159 (valued at almost $99 million)

Maui County:132

Hawaii County: 275

Still Got a Complaint?

Have a beef about the permit process? We want to hear from you. Send your complaints and anecdotes to feedback@hawaiibusiness.com. We will include them in an upcoming issue and pass them on to the appropriate agency – anonymously, if you prefer.

Or you can go directly to the counties, which all say they want to hear about your problems so they can improve their services. Here is how to contact them:

Honolulu County:
info@honoluludpp.org

Maui County:
(808) 270-7735

Kauai County:
(808) 241-4854

East Hawaii:
(808) 961-8331

 

Love Thy Neighbor

Whenever David Tanoue, director of Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting, attends public forums, he always tells people to be good neighbors. “If one of our inspectors shows up at your door, it’s probably because your neighbor filed a complaint,” Tanoue says. He says the DPP doesn’t go out to look for violations so they won’t know about the tool shed that’s built illegally in your backyard until someone else reports it.

“On the other hand, if an inspector shows up at your business, it’s most likely because your competitor complained,” Tanoue says.

Art Challacombe, chief of DPP’s customer service office, says that last year, the department received about 4,200 residential, 363 commercial and 853 sign complaints. “Times sure have changed,” Challacombe says. “It used to be that your neighbors would look out for you. Now, a lot of times they’re the ones turning you in.”

Speed the Process

Visit www.honoluludpp.org and review the permit checklists before you visit the office. Fill out the Internet Building Permit Application and schedule an appointment.

Bring three sets of plans for all residential jobs and five sets for commercial jobs so that you can submit plans to different agencies simultaneously. The information desk can tell you which agencies need to approve the plans.

This is a technical process, so plan accordingly. Complex projects require more review time. The speed of the process largely depends on the quality of your plans.

Be courteous. You’re likely to have a better experience if you make friends.

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