Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Don’t Waste a Good Opportunity

When your development project is nearing approval, the process to get a discretionary permit or action (Coastal Development Permit, Conditional Use Permit, Tentative Map, etc.) can be long, frustrating, and expensive.  By the time the agency produces a ‘Draft Conditions of Approval’, the Developer or Homeowner is so thrilled to be near the finish line that they’ll sign almost anything to get on the next Hearing docket and close the deal.  Having the stomach for just a little more effort in this last one or two weeks can make a huge difference in how the project progresses after it’s approved.  Here are some of the most important actions you can take when your draft conditions are completed in preparation for your Final Conditions and your hearing date.

Distribute a Copy of the Draft Conditions to All Relevant Consultants

The project architect, construction consultant, attorney, civil engineer, private planner, landscape architect, biologist, etc. should all have a chance to review the draft conditions before they mature into a final document.  Each discipline has their own unique perspective on how the rules will be applied (or misapplied), and can root out any infeasible or inappropriate constraints which would later burden the project.  If there are conditions for a discipline where no consultant has yet been hired, seek the advice of a new consultant just for this purpose, if necessary.  If they’re charging by the hour, having several pairs of eyes will add some expense to the budget, but the cost of missing something important will be far greater.

Don’t Over-Compartmentalize the Distribution List

Nowadays, conditions of approval are so complex that they contain overlapping constraints that may affect more than one discipline.  If the ‘Biological Requirements’ section is not distributed to the civil engineer as well as the biologist, the fact that certain monitoring procedures are tied to the grading and building activities may be overlooked.  Ask each consultant to review the document from beginning to end.

Don’t Be Afraid to Contest Unreasonable Demands with the Agency

Many conditions of approval are standard for the project type, or are based on irrefutable laws and regulations.  But others may simply be on the Agency’s wish list and place an unacceptable burden on the project costs and timeline.  City or County staff often have a specific interest in seeing the project flourish, and may not realize that a condition is likely a deal-breaker.  A short delay may be the biggest risk of trying to contest an unreasonable condition.

The ‘WHEN’ can be just as important as the ‘WHAT’

We’re used to seeing a condition such as ‘prior to the issuance of a grading permit, an irrevocable offer of dedication (IOD) for a portion of Maple Street shall be recorded’.  Is it reasonable to not even issue the grading permit until this is done?  This IOD may require an extensive review and recordation process, holding up your entire project because you won’t even get your first permit without it.  Is it possible to alter the condition to apply to something later in the project timeline (such as the building permit, the first inspection, or even the certificate of occupancy)?

City and County staff aren’t necessarily out to get the Developer or Homeowner.  Their schedules can be very busy, and they copy conditions from similar past projects that may not be appropriate for yours.  You may be doing everyone a favor, including the agency staff, by carefully reviewing and modifying the draft conditions before they become a reality.  It is much harder for anyone to change the rules after the discretionary permit has been recorded, even if they are considered unreasonable by all parties.  Take the one extra step of a thorough review before deciding to accept the document just because it has been a difficult journey to get this far.

John S. Coffey, PE, PLS, 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 15 years. 858-831-0111

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Value of a Lot's Boundary History

Imagine that you're considering buying 2 different vacant lots. Both appear the same in every way. They are both fronting the same street, a thousand feet apart from each other. Both have similar terrain, soil, and vegetation. Both have a neighbor on each side. Both are zoned the same way and in the same City. The tax map shows them both to be 100 feet wide and 200 feet deep and a little under half an acre, and neither one contains any easements according to the title report. They are the same, right? And the appraisals come in about the same as well. If they have everything that you need, you could flip a coin and either one would be a winner. You pick one and the deal is done.

The 'Bad' Lot

You plan to develop the property, so you hire a surveyor and say that you need a 'topographic survey', because that's what the City's development requirements demand. The surveyor discovers that the site was once part of a much larger parcel, deeded to the son of the large parcel's owner in 1970. No boundary survey was every filed, as it wasn't required in 1970. The surveyor informs you that in order to do any kind of survey, State law requires that a boundary survey is performed and a 'Record of Survey' be created and filed with the County surveyor's office. Upon the first field visit, it is determined that the two neighboring side line fences are only 96 feet apart, not the 100 expected. Furthermore, there is an incredible lack of monument evidence in the vicinity, either in the field or on paper, and what little is found is in significant discrepancy with the record. It turns out that your additional cost for buying this little mess will exceed $20,000, and you won't even own a lot that is the size you thought you purchased.

The 'Good' Lot

Soon after, your friend buys the other property you passed on for the same price you paid for yours. She also hires a surveyor to perform a topographic survey, and the surveyor determines that the parcel was part of a mapped subdivision in 1965. In addition, a boundary survey, with a Corner Record filed with the County Surveyor's office, was done in 1994 for a sale that didn't go through. At the same time he conducts the topo survey, the surveyor is able to research, relocate, verify, and flag all 4 corner monuments from the 1994 corner record, at an additional cost of $500.

The 'Problem'

You just learned the hard way that the condition of the boundary ‘history’ can have a significant effect on the value of a lot, and it’s often overlooked by other professionals in the real estate transaction process. It’s as if there was some contaminated soil on the site that no one knew about, waiting for an excavation to be discovered (and paid for) by the unsuspecting new buyer. This is a classic ‘buyer beware’ scenario, and most title policies do not cover these kinds of surprises.

The 'Solution'

Before buying, talk to a surveyor about the property and if necessary have them perform records research and possibly field monument location for the property. You can also purchase a special type of title insurance policy called an American Land Title Association (ALTA) policy, which will require a proper survey to disclose any problems with boundaries, evidence of possession, potential encroachments, and the like. Some lenders require them for certain transactions because they can’t afford to have their client inherit a site that will create a lot of unforeseen costs and problems. When you’re looking at property, don’t overlook the effect of boundary information on the cost and impact to you and your development plans.

John S. Coffey, PE, PLS, 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 15 years. 858-831-0111

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Dreaded Construction Change Process for Engineering Permits

As tough as the process is to secure a grading, public right-of-way, or public utility permit in the first place, processing a construction change or as-built can often be just as painful, or even more so. And the need to change the plans after construction begins has become more common lately in these tough economic times.

Preparation, Submittal, and Review

Because final engineering plans are still generated on mylar (a thin polyester film) in most municipalities, changes usually cannot be made by simply modifying and reprinting the electronic CAD drawing sheets. Instead, a process has been set up that requires the Engineer of Record to neatly redline a copy of the original plans and submit them to the City (or County or Utility Agency) for review, and potential modification. The redlines are then returned to the Engineer of Record, along with an authorization to proceed to make the noted changes on the original mylars. Many times, the City will ask for the redlines themselves to be revised and resubmitted, or what we like to call "revisions to the revisions". And don’t forget about the potential delays to your project that may ensue if the inspector will not authorize the field modification until the process is complete.


Sometimes the redlined plans must be submitted before any of the proposed changes are made in the field. Or, the contractor will make enough small changes over time to prompt the City inspector to demand that a construction change be processed to account for the field modifications already made. Every municipality has a different threshold for what changes are significant enough to warrant a construction change.

Replacement Sheets Often Not the Answer

Many municipalities allow the Engineer of Record to create a replacement sheet if the number of changes on the original sheet is too great. In such cases, the original sheet is voided, but still remains part of the original mylar set. Sheets are never discarded altogether. This would seem to be a good solution in most cases of a construction change, except that when a brand new sheet is created and inserted into a set, it often must be checked by several departments to ensure that something is not slipped past the eyes of the plan checkers. Basically, the cities may treat such a submittal as if they were looking at it for the first time (along with the typical number of plan check hours for looking at it for the first time).

Use of Antiquated Technology

So with replacement sheets frequently ruled out due to plan check complexity, we are often faced with the task of erasing information (with a high-speed electric eraser), and drafting by hand with special pens designed for use on polyester film. It often feels like our office has gone back in time to 1981.

Consider More Than Just Field Costs

Make sure that before you or your contractor make certain field changes, you consult with your Engineer of Record to see if the changes will create an expensive plan revision process. There may be an unapparent motive for the original design, or an unforeseen problem created due to the change. A decision to save $2,000 on drainage facilities in the rear yard, for example, may end up creating $4,000 in costs to make hand revisions to the plans, and revise a drainage report to prove the new system works or solve new problems it creates. 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. So we usually recommend settling on a plan design as early in the process as possible.

What is an 'As-Built'?

In the context of a municipal engineering permit, an ‘as-built’ (or more aptly referred to as ‘Record Plan’ or 'Record Drawing’) is like the final version of the construction change. Don’t be fooled by the term ‘as-built’. In almost all cases, a detailed survey is not conducted at the conclusion of the project to locate every installed and constructed feature. Instead, this plan usually reflects the ‘general condition’ of the project once completed, although a survey may still need to be conducted just to represent the necessary elements. The process is still similar. And sometimes, even if contractor considers the project complete, the inspector may require the project to go through the ‘construction change’ process anyway, so the appropriate staff can review the field changes that were made.

Any Changes on the Horizon?

If this whole process is sounding rather antiquated to you, that’s because it is. In our technological world, there are few processes and procedures that still depend solely on the document that you can hold in your hand. This is one of them. So long as the system is reliant on the original stamps and signatures that were on the plans when they were first approved, these types of procedures will remain prevalent. But we are starting to see some glimmers of hope. Some plan check departments are realizing the great burden that this can put on projects, and are receptive to some informal reviews of e-mailed changes. Some accept replacement sheets as long as the specific revisions are noted adequately on the new sheet. But this still has a long way to go. When we see some meaningful progress, we’ll be sure to let you know.

John S. Coffey, PE, PLS, 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 15 years. 858-831-0111

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Permeable Pavement Systems – Worthless Without Proper Maintenance

The concept is simple enough; create a pavement surface that will allow rainwater to simply pass downward through it and into a gravel reservoir where it has a chance to percolate back into the soil. Not only will these systems greatly reduce or eliminate storm water runoff volume from a paved area, but also greatly improve the quality of the water that enters the groundwater or storm drain system. With the inception of storm water quality design constraints for many sites, more projects are deploying permeable pavement systems, in the form of pervious concrete, pervious asphalt, gravel-filled plastic reinforcing grid systems, and the ever-popular permeable interlocking concrete pavers (PICPs).

If Not Maintained, Permeable Pavement Becomes Impermeable

When pervious pavement is first installed, its top layers can infiltrate more water than would ever be experienced in any rainstorm anywhere on the face of the earth; up to 500 inches per hour! This is simply because clean gravel, or anything highly porous, will pass a great amount of water through it vertically. Over time, surface sediments, mud, silt, debris, and organic material lodge themselves in the porous spaces. Additionally, the fill gravel used in the grout spaces of PICPs can become displaced by differential settling and high-speed surface traffic. In 2 years or less, without proper maintenance, a fully-functioning system can become completely clogged, and will function just like conventional concrete. Storm water may pond and go places never intended in the original design.

What Doesn’t Work

The following methods should not be employed to maintain permeable pavement systems:
  • Power Washing – This method displaces necessary fill gravel (in PICPs), and can drive clogging particles deeper into the porous top layer
  • Infrequent Sweeping – Displaces fill gravel (in PICPs), and is simply not adequate at removing embedded materials. Some types of frequent sweeping can offer some benefit so long as surface is monitored and lost fill gravel is replaced.
  • Pulling Large Weeds – If large weeds are growing in your pavement, then the system is being poorly maintained by definition. But pulling large weeds after they’ve grown will also exacerbate the problem, because dead root material will remain behind.
  • Waiting Too Long and/or Doing Nothing – Whatever maintenance methods are utilized, waiting too long between maintenance actions is one of the biggest contributors to failure of permeable pavement systems.

Complicating and Contributing Factors

Some site conditions exacerbate pavement clogging, and should be avoided. Where they cannot be avoided, an accelerated maintenance schedule is needed.

  • Lots of tree canopy – Overhanging trees that shed debris can quickly clog a permeable pavement system.
  • Systems that ‘accept flow’ from a nearby source – Pervious pavements should not be located next to a watershed (on a downward slope from a nearby area), or at the end of a drainage channel that will dump runoff into the edge of the pavement.
  • Windblown soil and debris – These systems will clog faster when constructed near bare or denuded areas with frequent or steady winds.
  • Landscape stockpiling – Site maintenance personnel should be trained not to stockpile any materials on top of permeable pavements, where the soil or landscape debris can directly clog the top layers of the system.
  • Unsuitable Traffic Conditions – Permeable pavement systems are not appropriate for frequent heavy vehicle traffic or high-speed traffic.

The Standard for Proper Maintenance

The best maintenance program for these pavement systems includes

  • Regular vacuuming (approximately every 6 months) and/or frequent and well-monitored sweeping
  • Spray or Flame Weed Abatement (when weeds are still very small)
  • Replacement of Fill Gravel (for PICPs), restoration of gravel back to surface (performed immediately after vacuuming)

Time is the enemy of any permeable pavement system. If regular vacuuming is not performed or the pavement is abandoned for a long time, a high-powered vacuum system should be able to restore the system. But be careful; special high-powered truck vacuums cannot reach confined spaces, and even where such a vacuum can reach and extract the clogging debris, it will also extract a good deal of joint gravel as well in PICPs (which must be immediately replaced). In pervious concrete and asphalt applications, wait too long to vacuum and the porosity can never be restored – the only solution is a complete pavement replacement.

Don’t waste the expense and efficiency of an otherwise excellent storm water device by not properly planning for regular maintenance. And make sure that a new owner or site manager understands the system they are inheriting, before they find out the hard way.

John S. Coffey, PE, PLS, 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 15 years. 858-831-0111