The Site of 'Permit Hell'
From the Chronicle:

“A full 588 days since the permits were first submitted Engelbrecht is still waiting to receive permission to demolish the water-damaged, ramshackle 1960s house that stands on the site of their dream house [in Bernal]. In mid-December they learned that after being on the verge of getting approval they were kicked back because of their failure to check a box on a form about the number of stories of the building.”
“City coffers have been hurting since the dot-com bust, and many departments have reduced staffing, which in turn makes getting permits more arduous and time-consuming.”

And yes, we know there are (at least) two sides to every story.
UPDATE: A “plugged in” SocketSite reader notes that there’s more to the story (and delay) than was reported (“…it appears the final drawings did not match the site permit drawings and had to be sent back to Planning.”). This would be one of those ‘other sides’ to which we were referring.
Permit hell is getting worse for San Francisco remodelers… [SFGate]

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by Anonymous

    It’s pathetic. The rules are so vague (like historical requirements thanks to [Supervisors] McGoldrick and Daly that began 1/06) that the decision making process is completely arbitrary and highly dependent on who gets your paperwork.
    And each district is different — certain districts create more paperwork because they have, ahem, more active residents.
    I myself am 1+ years since I first submitted my paperwork and I’m not doing anything near what these people in the Chronicle article are going through. And my neighbors want this to happen almost as much as we do.

  2. Posted by jeemster

    Click the url to search for permits under any name. It looks to me that the Architect is (pardon the pun) a little green, when it comes to working with the City. A quick search shows that the architect has only 2 permits with SF since 1900.
    I took the liberty of checking out the permit status and it appears the final drawings did not match the site permit drawings and had to be sent back to Planning. See PA# 200506235948 via
    then click on addendum to see the notes on why its taking soo long.
    Its always easy to blame the city.
    As for anonymous, I can help you if you would give an address.
    [Editor’s Note: Great insight, and our sincere thanks for offering to help out a fellow “plugged in” reader.]

  3. Posted by Anonymous

    No thanks. I’m afraid to let anyone know who I am or I’m sure someone will screw up our application, put it on the backburner or under a stack of paper.
    That’s how scary it is to deal with the city.
    But at least DBI seems to have reasonable, if very slow people (like having our application sit on a desk untouched for over a month). It’s the planning department that the scariest.

  4. Posted by Anon

    No question that the permit process is hellish, but the method they are pursuing kicks in a lot of scrutiny from the planning department. My understanding is that a demolition permit adds one year to the permit process (since the Demolition Ordinance of a few years ago was introduced) – regardless of whether the house is about to fall down or not. The permit process cannot begin until the demolition issue is resolved. Then the permit approval process generally runs 12-24 months for small projects (closer to 12 months for a new house – 24 months for multiple units). So at a year and a half, this is actually well within what would be expected by those in the industry. It looks like they did not know what kind of a hornet’s nest they were getting into when they planned to demolish the house and built a new one. I think you can demo a house pretty much to the studs under a remodel permit and essentially build a new house within the existing building envelope under a much quicker remodeling counter permit process.

  5. Posted by Dan

    In my neighborhood, at least, it appears that all home demos are done under the guise of renovation. By the end of the rebuild, it appears that every last stick of wood has been replaced.

  6. Posted by Angry
  7. Posted by Jeemster

    Response to Angry: Nope he has nothing to do with approvals. Code Inforcement Division is a totally separate department at 1650 Mission, while permit approval is at 1660 2nd floor. Field inspection is done on the 3rd floor. Each division has tottaly different inspectors.
    Happy New Year! May your neighbors be nice and not naughty.

  8. Posted by Anonymous

    “Then the permit approval process generally runs 12-24 months for small projects (closer to 12 months for a new house – 24 months for multiple units). ”
    Now you know why real estate is so expensive here. You can’t have it both ways — either you have a very restrictive setup that we have to “keep our San Francisconess” (which is tantamount to ossification of neighborhoods) and very expensive real estate or you have Houston (sprawl nightmare).

  9. Posted by peanut gallery

    I love that article. Pretty wild the power and opportunity for abuse in some city jobs. If I were you I would not be sharing my name with anyone online, you are just that at the mercy of system that you do not want to do anything to piss someone off. I did a project and between my contractor and city inspectors, it tested me good. By the end I was having to handle most the interaction with inspectors because my contractor was more interested in CYA and arguing than getting my permit finalized. No bribes were paid but if I did it again would be handing out $100s like a whale in vegas. It was a joke, and quite scary. I agree that SF should not look like Houston, but McFadden does not own million $ properties there…

  10. Posted by peanut gallery

    The not sharing your name was directed at the anon doing the remodel waiting for approval, not angry. Having done a remodel, I now find myself watching the Board of Appeals and Planning Board on channel 26. It is fascinating. Such drama. If the person in article did change the drawings after approval, that is a major no no. That is going to be a problem. And Bernal is one of the most active neighborhood groups in the city.

  11. Posted by pwb

    Toby Long & Clever Homes do mostly prefab which could have been an issue.

  12. Posted by Shannon

    Hi there,
    The comment about the final drawings not matching the originals is accurate, to a point. Our plans (yes, I am the subject of the article) went through seven stages of plan review. Each department is expert at their section of the SF building, planning, or demolition code. And the codes are mutually contradictory. The final stage is quality control, where all the contradictions are addressed by a catch all phrase of the originals not matching the finals. They could not and should not. They have been changed numerous times along the way. Now the original planner goes back and double checks all the iterations to ensure that the additions and subtractions haven’t created a new, serious code violation. We have been kicked behind the other permits in the quality control loop, not behind all the permits in process in total. While I agree that the diligence on the part of each person in permit process is excellent, and they are for the most part helpful, green-oriented people, the entire process is unwieldy, inefficient, and Byzantine. We were not aware of the quality control loop until we happened to look on the online permit site to see the latest status, after being assured for the (not joking) fourteen time that our permits “would be ready on Tuesday.” That was when we saw that the plans had been bounced back to the beginning of the process. It was heart breaking and budget busting. When the permits finally show up will be a determining factor for the greenness and in fact the viability of the project at all.
    For your consideration,

  13. Posted by Jeemster

    Shannon, First I am sorry to hear about your frustrations with the process required to build a new building in SF.
    EVERY permit issued goes thru a (usually quick) quality control before a postcard is sent out stating your permit is ready to be picked up. DBI staff can guess when your permit is going to be approved but this postcard is the only guarantee your permit is “approved” and waiting for you at DBI.
    I do agree the permit process is a lengthy process but it is up to the design professional to be experienced in the permit process, set reasonable time frames, and be truthful to the owner.
    Ive seen many design professionals say “yes” to a owner just to get a job knowing very well the project will violate either the planning, building, mechanical, or fire codes. Now I am not saying your Architect and Engineer did this but this practice happens and a big reason why the backlog is so great. (example: took planning over 5 months for them to even start notifcation on your project)

  14. Posted by Tom

    To all who are accepting of the current state of affairs, why is it that the process _must be_ such a lengthly and slippery one, requiring anyone who wants to build to retain only the annointed (read expensive) design professionals to get through it. There are plenty of cities in this country that have a simpler, clearer, and more fair process that are not called Houston. I know too many in SF who’ve had the process monkey-wrenched by hate-filled, envious, and vengeful neighbors, even after the neighborhood approval was obtained and the deadline passed, where the city takes the cowardly way out and sends the matter to a dispute hearing (in one case one of the board chastized the neighbor and city for letting it come before them). Fair is fair but is it even fair to accept this Byzantine process? What is so good about it, really (besides making everything more expensive, from the point of view of the wealthy)? And I won’t even go off-topic to talk about architectural mutilations that often result, given the compelling point of this thread about green components of ths building being killed off by this process.

  15. Posted by fizzandpop

    I know a way that you can build whatever you want, where ever you want, without having the hassle of permits or oversight. Claim you new structure is part of City College and local planning laws simply won’t apply.

  16. Posted by gwag

    Dbi issued a ocupancy certificate for my home with one major flaw 50% of the roof was unsuported, I hired a cotractor to do some work he left me with a incomoplete permit and a cancelled permit, so I hired a permit expeditor to help me solve my problems he took my $$ sent me a few emails. DBI PLANNING and the CONTRACTORS purpose is to restrict our rites and take our money.

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