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Permit approval by City of Winnipeg still needs improvement: WCA

Grant Cameron
Permit approval by City of Winnipeg still needs improvement: WCA

The Winnipeg Construction Association (WCA) submitted a brief to the city recently that raised concerns about the building permit approval process as well as proposed rules around bonds required before work on a project can begin.

While the association commended the city for making considerable strides towards improving the building permit process over the last 15 years, it cited several specific concerns with the building permit, inspection and occupancy permit process, and the amount of time it takes to get a permit approved during the summer.

“While we are currently seeing an improvement on processing times, with the first two months of 2019 meeting the target times, the permit approval times that we are really concerned about are during the summer months and it is very clear there is significant work needed to be done to reach the target times during the busiest time of the year for contractors,” said the association, which has more than 800 member firms.

The brief was presented to the city’s Red Tape Reduction Review which is studying the issue and expected to release a draft report this summer.

The city has been looking into the issue for a number of years. In 2005, a report on the matter was submitted that included 30 recommendations for red tape reduction. Earlier this year, the city’s Office of Public Engagement was directed to work with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and other stakeholders to identify a list of bylaws or regulations that council could update or eliminate to improve matters.

The WCA said in its brief that it appreciates measures taken by the city after the 2005 report, in particular Winnipeg’s move to post average building permit processing times on the city’s website on a bimonthly basis.

However, the WCA went on to state, with added clarity comes greater scrutiny. The association expressed concern with the time it can take to do an Initial Complete Review (ICR) of a commercial-staged or standard permit. An ICR means the permit has been accepted as a complete submission and is working its way through the system.

The WCA said if there is a question during the review, and the architect for example is contacted and asked to respond, the clock stops and resets. And, if the architect fails to respond for two weeks, this delays the permit approval but is not reflected in the actual permit approval time.

The situation is compounded, the WCA noted, by the fact that the city’s planning, property and development department has a vacancy rate between 10 and 15 per cent, which can have a significant impact on permit processing times, especially during the summer months when many staff are on holidays.

The association indicated it is difficult to provide a specific recommendation regarding the permit application other than seeking continued process efficiency and management of staff in the summer months.

The WCA also noted that members continue to voice concerns with the process to get inspections on their projects, with members reporting it is difficult to co-ordinate a time that an inspector can attend a site for an electrical or mechanical inspection. The current system requires contractors to phone the district during a specific morning period to book an inspection for that day. Until recently, there were no opportunities to communicate by email, text, leave a voice mail, or book an inspection via an online calendar.

The WCA is suggesting that the city invest in a comprehensive online inspection booking system for electrical or mechanical inspectors.

Another area of concern is a proposal to implement a system that requires a contractor to post a bond or financial deposit tied to items other than just the value of construction, such as landscaping, fencing, signage, exterior lighting and more, before getting a permit. The value would be determined by a design professional.

“WCA has a number of concerns regarding this approach,” the brief states, as the proposed plan suggests that contractors should incur the additional expenses for a bond for the value of the work, funding the professional to provide a cost estimate of the work, and also pay a professional to provide a certificate of completion.

“All of those expenses will add cost to owners looking to build in this city and will increase the administrative burden on obtaining a permit and undoubtedly increase the overall time for a permit approval.”

The WCA is suggesting that the city go back to the drawing board and draft another plan for site plan compliance.

“The Winnipeg Construction Association recommends the City of Winnipeg does not proceed with the proposed regime to ensure site plan compliance. WCA encourages the city to work with industry to help identify the extent of the problem, improve education and find a reasonable approach to enforcement.”

The WCA stated that regulations in the construction industry, in most cases, help deliver quality buildings in a safe way to community standards, but that the construction industry in Winnipeg is at its most efficient when there is a balance between administrative processes and the time-sensitive nature of construction.

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