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Vancouver looks to reduce building permit timelines for ‘frustrated applicants’

Evan Saunders
Vancouver looks to reduce building permit timelines for ‘frustrated applicants’

Officials with the City of Vancouver are looking at ways to speed up and simplify life for builders.

Over the coming year, staff will be focusing on reducing complex processes and lengthy wait times surrounding development permits, said Andrea Law, general manager of development, buildings and licensing with the city.

“Layers of complexity have impeded the city’s ability to issue permits, resulting in excessive review times for projects, increased costs, slow pace of development, competing regulations and priorities, frustrated applicants as well as (frustrated) staff,” Law said in a council meeting on Feb. 14.

“A transformative approach with radical change is required to improve the system. And that’s the challenge that we’re working through.”

One of the main focuses for staff in this area is simplifying permits for large developments, she said.

“The work around large development is focusing right now on rationalizing development permit conditions. This is a significant amount of work, cross departmental, to look at how we can significantly reduce review times and iterations for our development process.”

Law noted navigating the city’s development policies and requirements can be a labyrinth.

“We have more than 650 policy documents governing development which creates confusion not only for our applicants but for staff who are managing the program,” she said.

The breadth of documents can cause application quality to significantly vary.

Law said there are a number of applicants who know the system so well they can navigate it quickly, highlighting that long wait times for applications can often be as dependant on the applicant as on the city, as conditions need to be fulfilled before an application can move forward.

“Then we have applicants who are new to the city and may struggle to understand not only our regulatory framework, but how we process our applications,” Law said.

In order to address this, Law said staff are looking at the creation of a standard conditions library during 2023.

Law said staff are also focused on finding ways to resolve conditions which conflict with one another.

For large developments, the city will also optimize legal agreements. In Law’s presentation, she highlighted the city will finalize standardization of agreements and review and amend problematic terms.

“The outcome here is to reduce times to finalize legal agreements between the city and applicants. This work will be starting I believe in April and we will be reporting back to council.”

Staff are also working on improving several other aspects of building procedures.

For low-density housing, it is exploring the addition of missing middle housing, refining applications, simplifying regulations and adding digital application processing.

Other areas of focus include renovations, business licensing and customer service.

Coun. Peter Meiszner pressed staff on issues surrounding customer service since the onset of the pandemic, noting builders have told him they miss the city’s in-person counter.

“We know that a lot of our customers have struggled with our online application process. We are finessing it as we go,” Law replied, adding staff are exploring ways to increase in-person services.

According to Law, there are several key challenges around staffing numbers and increased applications, which both exasperate the traditional timelines around permitting and building.

“We’re dealing with probably the most significant number of vacancies that I’ve seen in my term with the city. So, our priority right now is to staff up as soon as we can,” said Law.

Meiszner suggested staff increase permit and development fees to hire more staff.

But with an increasing reliance on technology and once a few new staffers are brought on board staff should be able to handle the expected permit timelines, Law said.

The city has also been inundated with rezoning permits.

“We’ve got 296 active cases, that’s about 100 more than what we usually do,” said Theresa O’Donnell, the city’s director of planning and general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability.

But Law emphasized a lot has been done in the past 18 months to improve timelines.

Time to check plans for low density housing has been reduced from 12 weeks to 18 days, business licence wait times have been reduced from 16 weeks to two weeks and direct-to-inspection permits for renovations have a reduced processing time from eight weeks to one.

Further updates on how the city will address large development permitting and building times will take place in June, Law said.

Follow the author on Twitter @JOC_Evan.

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