Last week, mayoral candidate Simon Yu unveiled his plan to reduce the timeline for building permit approvals for the city.
In a statement issued to the media, Yu outlined his Operation: Build It! plan, which sets ambitious timelines for the city to process building permits.
Under the proposed plan, renovation projects involving minor structural alternations, such as adding a deck or small garage, should be processed in two days. Permits for new homes on serviced lots, or more extensive renovation projects, should be completed in two weeks, Yu said.
Building permits for commercial projects and multi-family housing projects should be issued in two months, while larger building projects requiring zoning variances or alterations to civic infrastructure should be processed within six month, Yu added.
“As a professional engineer, business owner, developer and instructor, I have witnessed first hand the regulatory burden that people confront when trying to advance their projects,” Yu said in a statement released to the media. “To address the housing and development challenges facing our community, we must increase supply, approving projects faster, and getting shovels in the ground quicker without compromising quality or public safety”
Even for seasoned developers working with professional assistance, the building permit times at the city can be 30 to 50 per cent longer than the targets set out in his plan, Yu said in an email.
“For example: I would like to see a custom home building permit application time be reduced from best current time of 3-4 weeks to less than two weeks,” Yu wrote. “Further, having the technical background and experience to address the unnecessary causes of the building and development permit processing bottlenecks, will allow me to initiate this plan effectively.”
Yu said he believes the city’s average development permit times and building permit times are longer than comparable-size cities like Kamloops, Vernon and Kelowna, he added.
In 2022, the city allocated $2.9 million for the development planning and administration department.
“Based on current budgets that support work on the second floor (around 15 in total - planners, building inspectors (currently only 3), plan checkers, front desk clerks including inspection travel disbursement, I believe a budget increase to match current inflation is only needed required,” Yu wrote. “We need to find ways to be more efficient, challenge the current environment, and that does not necessarily translate to additional cost. Together, we are going to do things smarter, faster, and more efficiently under my leadership.”
The city administration need to be challenged to find more efficient ways to approve projects, he added. Changes could include improving communication, and providing detailed submission standards drawings to applicants.
“We will promote a culture of professional development to support the upgrading of technical skill and development,” Yu wrote. “This will be made available to them in a targeted problem-solving fashion; thus, they we will strive to show greater empathy to all Development and Building Permit applicants.”
CITY LOOKING TO ESTABLISH SERVICE LEVELS FOR PERMITS
In an email, a spokesperson for the City of Prince George said the average time to approve a routine building permit for a single-family home is two to three weeks.
“These times can fluctuate depending on the volume of incoming files,” the spokesperson said. “Also, times can be affected by the completeness of the application and responses from applicants to questions about their submissions.”
For a more complex project, like a multi-family development which requires a rezoning, the average time is four to six months, the spokesperson said.
“We are working on establishing more levels of service for permit processing,” the spokesperson added. “We are also looking at methods for online applications as well as external tracking to give applicants more information on the status of their applications.”
The B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs was unable to provide data on average permit approval times across the province.
“Timelines for development approvals differ in every local government depending on factors such as the type of a development proposal and the local development approvals process,” a statement issued by the ministry said. “The Ministry of Municipal Affairs is working with local governments, UBCM, and the development sector to find opportunities to streamline and speed up local development approvals processes throughout the province so that communities can get the housing they need built faster.”
‘KNEE JERK PROMISES’
Fellow mayoral candidate Terri McConnachie said the city’s planning department has seen an unprecedented number of project applications across their desks.
“We have seen year after year of record breaking statistics in terms of building permits which include industrial, commercial and multi-family construction and the work to streamline services and reduce processing times must be sustainable change as opposed to knee jerk promises, in a department that is already stretched. Expediency for permits must be balanced with the safety and integrity of homes and structures,” McConnachie said in an email. “Training opportunities for staff, the use of technology for better communication and information exchange with industry, an audit of permit pathways and processes, as well as comprehensive onboarding for elected officials so that they are best informed in their decision making, are all moves in the right direction which I subscribe to, to build capacity. This work has already started.”
Mayoral candidate Chris Wood said guaranteed and suggested timelines are used in other B.C. municipalities, but he questioned if Yu’s timelines are reasonable targets to set.
“The numbers seem to be pulled out of thin air, with no thought to employees calling in sick or being on vacation (because the city has poor record of vacation coverage),” Wood said. “This is really just a sign that candidate Yu has not come to terms with separating his business from a possible role as mayor.”
Candidate Adam Hyatt said he is 100 per cent in support of decreasing timelines for building permits, and was the only candidate to advocate for that during the mayoral candidates forum hosted by CBC and the Prince George Public Library.
“I take this as a compliment, as the old saying goes ‘imitation is the best form of flattery.’ With this said, we also have to ensure that units are built appropriately and this does require review of plans, blueprints, etc. and there is a balance that is required to get more units built - but also built properly,” Hyatt said in an email. “Two days sounds great but might not be realistic. I feel 1-2 weeks would still be a large improvement and a more realistic and achievable goal.”
Candidate Lisa Mitchell said the city needs to make the building permit process less cumbersome, to promote development and building improvements in the city.
“I believe that Simon’s plan is a very realistic and achievable goal,” Michell wrote in an email. “ I have been informed by contractors in the city that the turn around time frame for permits has been long and cumbersome. We have to look at ways to streamline applications and then remove the processes that seem to be redundant (having to go through so many hands) we need to get back to basics.”
Mayoral candidate Roy Stewart said the building permit is only the end of a potentially-lengthy process, which may involve rezoning the land, amendments to the city's official community plan - both of which involve a public hearing before city council. - and reviews by the ministries of transportation, health and environment.
"It is obvious that given these parameters, obtaining a building permit is the last stage in the process of compliance," Stewart said. "Once all of these preliminary matters are satisfied, the actual process for issuing a building permit should not consume much time: the building department has to check to ensure that compliance with all of these related matters is satisfactory before a building permit is issued. A well organized applicant should not encounter significant delays."
Yu's commitment to focus on a more customer-service attitude at city hall was something Stewart had already committed to in his campaign platform.