‘Fast tracking’ building permits in Surrey, B.C.
Normally, the City of Surrey takes 4-6 weeks to process a permit. But if contractors join their Registered Builder program, permits can be issued within 10 days.
By Steve Payne
By David Godkin
Governments move slowly – none more so than in the Greater Vancouver Regional District where municipalities have been slow to take up former B.C. finance minister Kevin Falcon’s challenge last fall to implement a registered builder program to speed up permitting applications. Only the City of Surrey has such a program; it says the Registered Builder Program can process a building permit in ten working days or less, compared to 15 days for non-registered builders.
“It definitely does help,” says Nicholas Bell, Construction Coordinator for Foxridge Homes. “Typically we get our permits a week sooner than normal applications.” Faster turnaround of permit applications represents the new normal for Maskeen Homes office manager Lovepreet Grewal. “I like it because we don’t have to wait in line; otherwise you have to take a number and wait.”
“You can drop off your plans and it’s all taken care of,” says Genex Project Manager Allan Ullrich. “They’re also starting to do a few things electronically now like calculating permit fees.”
Kevin Falcon likened the fast track permitting system to NEXUS, the system at the U.S.-Canada border which facilitates faster crossing times for pre-approved commercial transport companies. A pre-approved registration system for contractors, said Falcon “allows the municipality to provide a positive incentive to any contractors out there, whether it’s a small single family home builder or renovator, to strive to be very good at what they do.”
Falcon said he’s amazed the concept is not more widely adopted. Not only do contractors gain access to a fast tracked permitting system, they can use that as a selling point in their business. “The municipalities would get the benefit of real high quality contractors working in the community and the contractors are able to get their projects underway quicker and their clientele is happier. Everyone really benefits.”
So far, sixty-eight builders are registered in Surrey’s fast track program, many of whom are repeat clients and who have earned the chance to jump the queue, says Jean Lamontagne, General Manager of Surrey’s Planning and Development Department. “It’s a way of accommodating well-organized, high volume clients so that they can get in and out faster than people who don’t have a full submission or are making changes throughout the process.”
Registration as a preferred builder in Surrey comes with conditions, however. Applicants must be either a Registered Housing Professional (R.H.P.) with the Canadian Home Builder’s Association of British Columbia or a graduate of BCIT’s Building Construction Technology Program or equivalent program from another acceptable Canadian technical institute. “This way we won’t be teaching you how to put in an application,” says Lamontagne.
“Sometimes if you’ve never done a house design we almost have to do the design for the client. This ensures a more professional building permit application.”
Complicating all this, of course, is the new building code introduced in B.C. in December. In the rush by some contractors to get their building permits approved prior to the new code coming into effect the volume of applications jumped precipitously. Now that it’s springtime, the volume is expected to rise again as customers think about renovating their homes.
Nevertheless, says LaMontagne, on average Surrey takes between 4-6 weeks to process permits for single family homes. “The time savings could be one or two weeks depending upon the amount of work for those certified builders.” That compares favourably to municipalities such as Maple Ridge where home owners and builders can wait nearly three months for their building applications to be approved.
But it also helps when a company knows what a municipality is looking for. Bell says Foxridge “does nearly 200 houses a year” and because of that “we know exactly what the City of Surrey is looking of in regards to their permit form and all the different documents they want.”
For all its success, Bell says the Registered Builder Program isn’t perfect. For example, the quick drop off of completed forms in the preferred builders’ box is offset by a new policy for obtaining forms at the beginning of the process. “We have to pay for it on one day and then come back and pick it up on another day. That’s troublesome.” Better to pay for the permit application the day you pick up the permit, he says.
Nor should we assume that the permitting application process is faster today than it was years ago, adds Ullrich. Naturally, waiting lines are much longer because of the sheer increased numbers of building projects and permits. But this is exacerbated by another challenge, he says: predictability. “If you can keep it consistently as six weeks, why couldn’t you keep it consistently at three weeks?” Even given differing project requirements “if every day you keep doing the work you’re doing right now you should be able to keep it at that length.”
One way of speeding things up is to put all of the permitting process on-line, says Lamontagne. “We have some specific permits that you can do on line, e.g. electrical and plumbing permits; we’re working on implementing building permits on line. But we’re not there just yet.”