Sunday, October 18, 2009

The 'Small Project' Burden

A lot’s been made in the past 2 decades of ‘simplification’ of the permit process. Most cities in the County have either refined their list of submitted items and procedures of review, or created new items and procedures; all formed in the interest of ‘simplicity and efficiency’. This refinement is not without its benefits. Private parties (homeowners, designers, and other consultants) have the luxury of clear and concise checklists. With the right mix of knowledge and patience (and money), a person submitting a package for a building, discretionary, grading, administrative, or other permit can eventually create all the elements being called for. Coastal Development Permits can contain nearly all the same elements and requirements as Site Development Permits – right down to the same FAA clearance for your new one-story home 8 miles from any airport!

This is not to say that the process itself (once you’re a part of it) is in any way simple. We all have experience with different City staff giving different answers and different interpretations for the same issue. And don’t forget all of the ‘optional’, ‘recommended’, ‘case-by-case’ elements – “..if 50% of your site contains slopes greater than 25%, or 10% of slopes greater than 200% with native vegetation and adjoining a street starting with the letters A-F..”. OK, I’m exaggerating for effect, but you get the idea.

In the name of efficiency

The City has decided that in order to create an ‘efficient’ permit process, two things need to happen:
  1. The submittal checklist must contain as many items as plausible, to present every staff member the part of the project they need to review, and
  2. Drawings and documents for different projects should have as many similar characteristics as possible to improve staff recognition and repetition.

But one person’s efficiency is another person’s nightmare.

The burden on small projects

It’s not surprising where this philosophy has led us. Each project that finds itself with certain ‘qualifiers’ will have to endure the same great deal of requirements. For a larger project with multiple lots or large commercial use, $200,000 in these ‘soft costs’ could be considered simply the cost of development. But for a single residence, $200,000 in soft costs is usually a deal breaker.

What we may need is a little MORE complication

As tempting as it would be to try, the Federal, State, and Local laws of development can’t be simply eliminated. So many rules are simply executions of regulations that cannot be easily changed. But what can be done to allow smaller projects to meet these compliance regulations efficiently and cheaply enough to make them a worthwhile pursuit? Here are a few worthy goals that both public and private industry professionals should pursue:

  • Create different ‘versions’ of the same kind of permit. Some cities have their versions of ‘simplified’ or ‘self-certified’ grading permits. These permits require fewer associated reports and/or fewer reviewing departments. But for some cities the qualifications are so specific that projects rarely qualify for one. Good idea, but it still needs improvement, and we need to see it in more instances.
  • Create abbreviated categories for report documents. OK, so the rules dictate that a biology study and drainage report be prepared for certain project types. Can the City come up with a checklist/questionnaire–style biology study or a short-form drainage report, to be deployed for qualifying single-lot projects?
  • Allow for up-front participation by decision makers. What if a higher-level manager could evaluate a project at submittal or pre-submittal and allow for efficient shortcuts for small, qualifying projects? Unnecessary or unreasonable submittal items could be waived, and abbreviated report categories could be selected.

These are just a few ideas of some shortcuts within the reach of public officials. How many potential small projects are sitting in the ‘soft cost graveyard’ because they have great promise, but red tape is keeping them from development? These ideas, and more like them, have a chance of making a sizable difference to the burden on smaller projects, and that helps everyone in the industry by bringing more projects back from the dead.

John S. Coffey, PE, is founder and President of Coffey Engineering, Inc. in San Diego. He’s contributed to over a thousand civil engineering, surveying, and planning projects in San Diego and surrounding communities over the past 14 years. 858-831-0111

Saturday, September 12, 2009

All Topographic Surveys are not Created Equal

Imagine that you have a nagging pain in your knee, and based on what you’ve heard and speaking with a few of your friends, you decide that you need an x-ray. So you go out and get an x-ray of your knee – you may even shop around first for the best price if you’re paying in cash. Then you show up at your doctor’s office with your films in hand, proudly proclaiming that you’ve already obtained a knee x-ray. But when the doctor starts asking you questions about your knee, he determines that it’s probably arthritis, and to get to the root of the problem he needs to order an MRI, and even a few more x-rays – this time from the correct angles and positions.

Most people wouldn’t handle their medical problems in this manner – not speaking to the doctor first would be like putting the cart before the horse – and a Radiologist who just did what you said and took an x-ray of your knee, without an order from your doctor first or without asking any questions, would be doing you a disservice. But that’s how many good, honest landowners, deciding to develop all or part of their property, start out by simply ordering a ‘topographic survey’ to get the ball rolling.

One of the most important parts of the site development process is getting a good survey. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the first things you do; so many people enter into the decision with very little knowledge of what the project will entail. Getting input and advice from your civil engineering or surveying professional with knowledge of the local codes and procedures is vital to getting your project started off on the right foot.

Why it matters

You may wonder why it matters so much – after all, you can always have your surveyor pick up ‘a little more information’ later if it’s needed, right? But at what cost to the project? Besides the actual costs to re-survey the new area, what if a major design decision is made based on the topography shown – and then you find out later that this portion of the site was obscured from view, or ‘approximated’, because at the time of the survey it was not considered part of the development area? It may cost a few thousand dollars or more to have several design consultants change their plans. Or even worse, what if it’s discovered at construction that what you thought was a 6 foot high retaining wall really needs to be 12 feet high because of inaccurate topo information? Besides the cost of several thousand dollars (and sometimes a lot more) to build the additional wall, and the delays that will ensue, will the local agency even let you build a wall over 6 feet high?

What to Do

For many types of development projects, you’ll need a solid, comprehensive topographic survey to cover all of your bases. This may include a combination of detailed aerial and ground-shot information, to limits well outside of your property boundaries, with a boundary survey if your parcel warrants it. But for many smaller projects, your budget may dictate that you do only what’s needed and not too much more. For these kinds of projects, before proceeding, ask yourself and your design professional some key questions about:

  • Important Design-Driven Elements – If it’s critical to know where and how high your neighbor’s house is because of a beautiful view, including it in your survey is a must. Are there a few trees that you simply must keep? Then their trunk and drip line locations should be included.

  • Location of Existing (potentially conflicting) Features – The location of existing utilities, such as water lines, utility boxes, power poles, etc. may be vital in driving your design decisions about driveway or structure placement, grading, and landscaping. And don't forget about existing septic systems, both on your site and on an adjacent site - such information could literraly make or break your project.

  • Precision – If you’re going to make use of existing structure, hardscape, and landscape features on your site, then you may need precise spot elevations and positions for those features. If you’re just going to demolish existing features and start over, then this level of precision is usually unnecessary.

  • Conditions on Adjacent Properties – We’ve seen many well-drawn, detailed ground-shot topographic surveys of urban sites, only to find out later that the next door neighbor has a 5 foot retaining wall/drop off right along the property line which would severely inhibit what we can design on our side of the line. Or a brow ditch may be constructed just on the other side of a common property line – an important feature when considering the drainage design of the property.

  • Municipality Requirements – You may think that your remodel only requires you to collect topographic information within 30 feet of the existing house because that is the limit of your proposed work. But if you’ll later need a grading or discretionary permit, the agency may dictate that your entire site, plus an additional distance beyond your site, be included. Does the fire department require existing hydrants within 300 feet of the property be shown? Do you need to show existing street improvements to the opposite side of the street? Best to gather this information during the (first) survey.

  • Thick Brush and Vegetation – Aerial surveys rely on line of sight from a plane flying overhead, so features below heavy tree canopy will not be clearly defined by an aerial. If brush is thick even at ground level in an area of importance, consider partial clearing to allow for some shots to be picked up by your ground survey.

  • Vertical Benchmark – Not having to search for and tie in a recorded vertical benchmark is less time consuming for the surveyor, but for most projects, tying in an agency-recorded benchmark is required to demonstrate to the agency and the surrounding neighbors the actual elevation of the features of your property when presented for review. Be absolutely certain that it won’t affect your project before you allow an assumed benchmark be used for your survey.

  • Boundary Lines – For certain properties, generally those created by deed only and without a recorded map, a boundary survey, and the corresponding setting of field monuments/property corners, will be required in addition to your topo.

  • Below the Surface – Features of your property that can’t be seen in the field, such as easements, setbacks, and underground utilities, are critical features that should not be overlooked. Make sure your civil engineer or surveyor can research and plot these for you on your final survey drawing.

The Bottom Line

Being too hasty in ordering a ‘simple’ topographic survey can turn out to be quite costly later. Speaking or meeting with a knowledgeable design professional beforehand will go a long way toward avoiding unnecessary delays and expenses. And if you decide to competitively bid your survey, create a comprehensive list of requirements first so you can compare apples-to-apples from prospective companies. We like to say that when it comes to site development, if you do nothing else, get a good survey – it’s the best insurance you can buy for your project.

John S. Coffey, PE, is founder and President of Coffey Engineering, Inc. in San Diego. He’s contributed to over a thousand civil engineering, surveying, and planning projects in San Diego and surrounding communities over the past 14 years. 858-831-0111

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Quick Guide to Grading Permits in Southern California

Why is a grading permit such a big deal?

Congratulations. You’ve decided to develop your property in California. But you may be wondering why it seems like such a hassle just to move dirt around your site? One of the reasons is that grading is considered an environmental quality issue by the State of California, and therefore is considered the public’s business. The creation of slopes and the moving of earth, and their impact to public views, or to environmentally sensitive land, is considered an important issue. And public safety may be affected by the placement of fill dirt, the stability of a steep slope, or the impact of modification to natural drainage courses. The quality of storm water runoff leaving your site, both during and after construction, has been shown to have a particular downstream impact on streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean, if not handled properly. It may be critically important to you or a future owner of your property, as well, to ensure that dirt is removed and placed safely around your property to ensure the integrity of future structures and to avoid drainage problems.

Other consultants will need to ‘weigh in’ on the grading plans

For most grading permit projects, you’ll need to hire a soils (geotechnical) engineer to assist in the process. After a general concept plan is created by us or your architect/designer, your soils engineer will need to perform tests on site to determine the stability and usefulness of the existing soil, and whether the work being proposed can be safely constructed. They will need to create a report, with recommendations for us and other consultants to perform calculations and design for your site and its structures. They will also need to provide direct supervision on site during the grading operations, to ensure that their recommendations and the City’s grading ordinance are being complied with. A compaction report will need to be created which describes the grading work performed.

Depending on the scale and complexity of your project, a landscape architect may need to be obtained to prepare planting and irrigation plans which will serve as part of our grading permit set. Their plans are considered an important aspect of the grading permit to ensure that your site is well-protected from the possibility of future erosion or slope failure due to inadequate plant life.

If you have or need an on-site septic system, a septic consultant or your soils engineer may need to perform testing and research to determine the feasibility and location of an existing or proposed system.

The Permit ‘Process’

It’s called a process, but in many ways it’s a struggle – a struggle to maximize the benefit to your property while still complying with the regulations in your particular jurisdiction. The process has been described as adversarial by people in the industry – We are focused on maximizing your site’s development potential at the best possible cost of construction, and the City is focused on protecting the interests of the public including aesthetics, safety, and following the guidelines set forth in the City’s grading ordinance. But it’s not that clear cut. We also have the responsibility to ensure that public safety is upheld, and that future owners of your property, or you, are not burdened with maintenance issues due to inadequate design. Conversely, the City has some interest in making sure that development can proceed successfully so that growth is not severely limited or stopped altogether. So, in many ways, we work with each other and against each other at the same time.

Plans go through a ‘review process’ at the City

The City requires that grading plans be prepared and formally submitted to them, along with all the necessary companion reports and documents. At the time of submittal, although the majority of the ‘design’ to the project has been completed, it is really just the beginning for the life of the grading permit. The City will review the submitted plans, and make comments, in the form of redlines or comment letter(s). Most of the time, several departments will review the plans, and each make comments based on their department’s primary concern. The comments may range from very technical, such as for code-specific requirements, to very general, such as a City Engineer’s recommendation to do things ‘in a different way’. They may ask us to ‘prove’ our conclusions, with additional reports or letters. If we feel that a comment is unreasonable, we may contest it to protect your best interests of costs and need, instead of just ‘doing it the way they asked’.

Even if every single concern from all departments is addressed in our responses and revisions, we receive additional comments from the City anyway. Most grading plan review processes go through 3 plan checks on average – the City checks and comments on them 3 times before asking for ‘final’ plans. It is sometimes in the City department’s best business interests to check the plans with great deal of effort, because they are compensated for their time with ‘paid-in-advance’ deposit accounts devoted to plan-checking.

Change is Inevitable

Unfortunately, no matter how many times we prepare and process grading plans, even through a particular City or City department, there is only one thing that we can be sure of – that things will always be changing. Cities may change their grading permit ‘checklists’, or their fee schedules, or their enforcement of certain engineering or environmental regulations, and they do this frequently. One plan checker in a department may be a stickler for details, asking for things that may never really be needed for successful construction, while another in the same department, checking for the same purposes, will be more understanding and allow many decisions to be made at our discretion. A new department head may come in and decide to do things differently. When things like this happen, the costs to you, in the City’s fees to review the plans and our fees to revise them, can be severely impacted.

City regulations may drive design decisions

Many times, after a project has been permitted, we’re asked questions by the contractor or client such as “why did you design the rear yard to have an (expensive) retaining wall along it, instead of just designing a (much cheaper) graded slope?”. In almost all cases, the design was driven by a City regulation or the client’s wishes, or a combination of both. Many cities have development regulations limiting the amount of developable area on a property, or a requirement that steep slopes be maintained in their natural condition as much as possible, or a restriction on how high, in elevation, a building site can be. Remind your contractors to contact us if they want to make decisions based on cost alone – they may be creating a great deal of expense and headache down the road, when the City discovers that their regulations for the site’s development were not followed.

Bonding – Your grading permit must come with an insurance policy

Unless your proposed grading is very minor in nature or City regulations exempt you, the City will require that you execute what’s called a ‘permit performance bond’ right before they issue you a permit. They will require you to secure this bond, or letter of credit, with a bank or lending institution, or you may simply write a check that the City will use to set up a temporary fund. A portion of this bond usually needs to be in the form of cash, so that the City can act in the case of minor site emergencies that are not responded to. The City expects you to maintain and continue to work toward the goal of successfully grading your site after you start. They will execute the bond or letter of credit in the event you ‘walk away’ from your project site for a long period of time, or fail to implement safety or erosion-control devices on your site in a timely manner, and inadequately respond to their requests for rectification. It’s uncommon, but when it does happen, the City generally does what it needs to with funds from your account or bank, to return the site to a safe condition, including hiring a private engineer to conduct a new topographic survey and design.

‘Cost estimates’ versus ‘contractor cost estimates’

The total amount of your bond is based on an engineering cost estimate, prepared by us and reviewed and/or modified by the City, and is created for bonding purposes only. The cost estimate is based on ‘per-unit’ prices established by the City, so contractor prices may vary significantly from those shown. Also, certain site work doesn’t need to be included on the estimate, so we won’t include it since doing so will inflate your bond amount and therefore your costs to insure your grading permit. Always obtain real contractor estimates to budget your actual construction costs.

Getting your money back or your bond cleared

The bond is usually ‘cleared’ only after the site has been completely graded and landscaped to the satisfaction of the City Inspector, and we have prepared, submitted, and had approved (by the City), adequate ‘as-builts’ of your site. Many times, the City requires certifications from your soils engineer or landscape consultant. In some municipalities, a portion of your bond may be held for up to a year after final approval just in case any problems arise for the City after construction is complete.

After construction has begun – Certifications, Plan Changes and As-Builts?

Once rough grading is complete, the City will probably require that your site be certified by us, either by a walked inspection or a survey of elevation and location, or both. Such certifications are typically required before a building permit will be issued or authorized.
Changes to the site that are proposed during or before construction may need to be presented to the City in the form of a ‘plan change’, or if the problem is minor enough to wait until the end of construction, an ‘as-built’. In such a process, we prepare redlines (mark on a copy of the originally-approved grading plans with red ink) of the proposed changes, or in the case of as-builts, the work already performed, submit them to the City, and the City responds with a request for us to revise our proposed changes, or to proceed to make such changes on the project mylars (the final plastic set of plans required at grading permit issuance) for City Engineer approval. If the number of changes is substantial, then significant hours (and costs) may be incurred by the work required. Unfortunately, most Cities’ processes require us to make revisions with liquid ink pen-on mylar drafting, because these agencies still don’t have a good, cost-effective way of handling revisions to plans in electronic (CAD) format.Please make your contractor aware that certain changes, though saving money in construction costs, may create more costs later when as-builts must be prepared. A decision to save $1,500 on drainage facilities in the rear yard, for example, may end up creating $3,500 in costs for us to re-draft a drainage report and make hand revisions to the plans to prove the new system works or solve problems it creates. We should be contacted by you or the contractor if a site change of any significance is proposed, to make sure there’s not another motive for the original design or an unforeseen problem created due to the change. After the permit is issued, you can significantly limit any additional fees incurred by us, other consultants, and the City, if you follow the plans as closely as possible.