Nanaimo is taking early steps on the path to speeding up the city’s building permit applications approvals.
At a governance and priorities committee meeting Monday, city councillors were updated on the building permit function review, a draft report from a study of the city’s building permit approval process presented by Allan Neilson, principal of consulting firm Neilson Strategies, with recommendations to streamline and speed up building permit approvals.
The value of permit applications peaked in 2019 at more than $445 million, then dropped to about $243 million in 2020. Numbers of applications and their values rise and fall year-to-year, but overall have effectively doubled over the past 10 years and continue to become more complex with changing building codes and bylaws, the consultant said.
The review identified a number of bottlenecks that currently slow permit approvals, including software inefficiencies that hinder the receipt of applications and fee payments, and an understaffed building inspections department.
The report made several recommendations, including that the city work with industry to create two intake streams for applications – one for simple, low-risk tenant improvement and residential projects, which comprise the bulk of applications, and a separate intake stream for complex permit applications for large commercial and residential builds. The report also recommends that one supervisor and one building official positions be added to establish a fast-track permit group.
Nanaimo currently has 14 building officials, two of whom are supervisors.
“Perhaps the key takeaway point is that number of staff has remained constant for some time,” Neilson said. “In fact, if we go back eight, 10 years we see that number unchanged. At that time we saw the number of building permit values at about half of what they have been in 2019 … so we’re seeing an increase in the volume of work, the complexity of work and … the number of requirements and expectations that have to be met in building code and in building bylaws.”
Neilson said growing costs of overtime paid over the last three years to staff to complete commercial building inspections could cover the costs of additional staff and said without hiring more staff, it will be extremely difficult for the city to reduce permit approval times.
The city should work with industry, the report said, to establish a joint building permit advisory group to design and implement methods to reduce processing times, promote relations between the city and industry and address other identified issues and needs.
“The city needs to be a facilitator and industry also needs to work with the city to help build high-quality, safe developments in the city,” Neilson said. “When it’s working well, when a true partnership does exist, we get very healthy, very good development and we get it in a fairly good timeline and that’s what we’re aspiring to.”
The report recommends the city also invest in creating an online portal for receiving applications and accepting fees, with a tracking dashboard so applicants can check up on their permit’s progress.
Costs associated with implementing the report’s recommendations could be recovered through savings in overtime wages, applying for grant money available through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs’ local government development approvals program and increasing building permit fees to bring them in line with comparable cities.
Neilson noted Nanaimo’s current permit approval times are not out of line with delays experienced in other cities, such as Surrey, Maple Ridge and Kelowna, and said Nanaimo’s wait times are shorter than Burnaby and Vancouver, which he said is “infamous for its delays.”
Councillors voted to refer the recommended additional staff positions to the finance and audit committee for consideration in the city’s 2021-2025 financial plan, to direct city staff to proceed with implementing the changes outlined in the draft report and the submit a grant application to help implement established best practices and test ways to improve development approvals processes.