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.