Municipal Permits and Schedules

By Doug Hanna

After an owner has gone through the work of hiring an architect or designer, finalizing the design and then choosing a contractor, they are naturally eager to begin construction. Besides negotiating the contract, choosing materials and working out design details, there is the "small" matter of securing the correct permits to begin work. When we first started out in business, getting a building permit was a pretty straightforward affair. For smaller jobs, we could just stroll right into the building department  (now known as Inspectional Services), and walk out with a permit. Permits for jobs that were more complicated or had major structural elements might take a week or so to get approval. 

Another trip to Cambridge City Hall.

Things sure have changed. Now most towns require applications be completed on-line, which eliminates any human contact early on in the application process. I suppose this is a more fair way to go about things, as everyone is taken in turn, but the builders have less actual contact with the inspectors "at the counter." After the permit application is submitted on line, there may be a number of additional agencies that need to sign off on it before the inspectors at the building department take a look.  If your job is in an historical district, the historical commission will need to sign off on the application, or possibly refer it to a hearing before the historical board. If you are building an addition above a certain size, most towns will now require that a civil engineer submit a plan for water mitigation on-site, rather than putting the storm runoff into the city storm drains. This drainage plan needs to be approved by the DPW. Depending on the type and size of construction, the fire department also may need to be involved up front. 

Once all the ancillary agencies have signed off, the inspectors at the building department then have the go-ahead to review the application and the plans. If you are adding on, changing openings in the exterior of the building, adding skylights, or doing any number of other improvements, the zoning official, who may also be the building inspector, may require that you produce a certified plot plan (survey). The survey will show the lot lines, floor area calculations, lot area, and any new additions or changes, to see that your proposed project does not violate any zoning ordinances. If you do need zoning relief, you will be instructed to apply for either a special permit or a zoning variance. But, assuming you do not need a zoning hearing, you finally will have your plans reviewed by the plumbing, electrical and building inspectors. Usually this is the easiest part of the process, depending on their workload, unless they spot something weird in the plans, which is unusual.  

This list of potential hoops to jump through may seem daunting, but the only ones that a homeowner does not have ultimate control over are historical and zoning.  Requirements and possible outcomes in those realms are too varied and nuanced to be addressed in this column, but it can be done with a combination of hard work, a good lawyer and nice neighbors.

The point here is this: what used to be a very easy process is now much more complicated. Getting the contract signed is looked at as the starting point for the project by the entire team, but in reality, it's the issuance of the permit that signals the beginning. And these two events can be weeks, or even months apart.