Thursday, December 9, 2010

How to get your building permit in 387 easy steps

Adrian asks me if there is somewhere where you can buy a piece of land and just build on it without having to go through the bureaucracy of building permits. I don't know but I'm guessing maybe somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Or possibly the moon if it doesn't get privatized anytime soon.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for building permits, especially in an urban environment. We need some sort of mechanism to protect people from having their houses, or their neighbour's houses, falling down around them because of shoddy workmanship but, still, the permit application process is most definitely a daunting endeavour. It's not for the faint of heart and I'm guessing that's intentional.

It starts with a Pre-Application Applicable Law (PAL) Review. Just look at the title of this thing and you know you're going to be in for a head spin. From the City of Toronto building website:

The PAL Review is a detailed review of a building proposal to determine compliance with various applicable law requirements.

It is an open, flexible program with fewer limits on the number of reviews. Examiners will work with you throughout the process to achieve your goal of obtaining a Notice of Applicable Law Compliance.

I'm not sure what that means but in practice it seems to involve handing in floor plans and building elevations so that someone can tell you if the size and location of your proposed structure is okay. This is where someone will tell you that building a mini-skyscraper in a residential lot isn't going to get approval or that you probably won't get the okay to build a sports arena in your backyard.

There are loads of rules you must follow to get a 100% pass for the PAL Review and I don't know half of them so if you're looking for guidance on that here in this post, you're out of luck. Best to find an experienced designer to help ride out those murky waters if you're building something yourself.

Of course, a lot of builders don't get a 100% pass. The PAL review might tell you, for example, that your building is 6 inches too high. Now you can either go back and change your plans or you can try to apply for a variance from the Committee of Adjustment.

So, I guess the PAL review is basically a foreshadowing of things to come. If you end up with a whole list of stuff that the PAL Review says is going to snag your building permit application, then at least you can do something about it up front.

The PAL Review will also tell you how many thousands of dollars the building permit is going to cost you. It doesn't necessarily tell you how much all the other supporting paperwork on the way to getting the final building permit is going to cost but, hey, I guess they want to break it to you gently.

Adrian's submission went fairly smoothly. The main suggestion after the initial review by the PAL people, was for a survey of the building lot. This is supposedly something new in the process. Previously, surveys didn't have to be done until later but they've been bumped up.

Once you get all the information you can from the PAL Review, you generally start applying for your variances, if you have any, but in Adrian's case, because his lot is on conservation land (ie. there's a big ravine nearby), there's an added step of getting the plans passed by Site Plan Control.

Here's what the official document says about Site Plan Control:

Site Plan Control is an important planning tool for implementing the policies of the Official Plan. A Site Plan Control by-law enables the City to approve the design and technical aspects of a proposed development to ensure it is attractive, functional and compatible with the surrounding area or planned context.

Site Plan Control can also come into the picture if the property has historical value or if there was a toxic waste dump next door or anything else where there is some sort of environmental concern.

Because the build site is on conservation land, Site Plan Control will, at a minimum, ask for an arborist's report so Adrian is now in the process of looking for an arborist. Hopefully, that's all Site Plan Control will ask for but you never really know for sure until they ask for it.

With all this stuff still to do and get approved, it's going to be weeks if not months away from the Committee of Adjustments to apply for variances and then the final building permit application. I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.