The permit process can be pretty straightforward if you’re doing a simple remodel. But try to do anything out of the ordinary (like everything I do), and it can be a frustrating, time-consuming, and expensive proposition. The city Planning Department is a fun-house hall of mirrors and the people who work there like it that way.
The Planning Department is a vast conspiracy whose primary mission is to make the process as confusing as possible in order to guarantee every retiring staff member a lucrative second career as permit consultants where they make more money than they ever could have working behind a counter.
These consultants are often called “expediters”, but that term is misleading and often misused. The only people who can really expedite a permit process are one of the downtown law firms who hire former planning department staff members and even retired city council members and charge fees starting at $50,000 and up. These expediters are hired by large developers or superrich celebrities trying to get around the rules with as little fuss as possible.
For the rest of us mere mortals, there are a variety of consultants who can help us navigate the system with as few mistakes and delays as possible. Only by avoiding delays are they “expediting” anything. They cannot circumvent the process or make anything move faster. The most they can do is ensure that an eight-month process actually takes eight months – not ten. But these consultants aren’t cheap either and usually won’t touch a project unless they can charge at least $10-20,000 in fees.
What many people call “expediters” are what I call “runners” or “bag-carriers”. For $40-50 per hour, they will carry your plans through Plan Check and other planning counters. Some of them will help you research and prepare your case – others won’t. Some others only do the research, not the trafficking. You’ll see these runners around the planning office, often pulling file crates on wheels loaded-up with plans and paperwork for multiple clients. I’ve seen two types: 1) older men and women who recently retired from the Planning Departments and are still on close terms with everyone behind the counter, and 2) young, leggy women who wear the highest heels, the shortest skirts and the lowest-cut blouses you’ve ever seen and know how to flirt. In both cases, you’ll see them wave and blow kisses to everyone as they enter the floor. They’ll stop and chat with everyone they see and spend more time talking with staff members about family, vacations and office gossip than they do conducting business. All this while you sit seething, waiting for your number to be called, feeling like the outcast at a party where everyone else knows each other.
So back to you – do you need a runner, a permit consultant or an actual expediter? It depends on how complicated your permit issues are and what your budget can afford. You don’t need any of these if your project is fairly simple and your architect or contractor doesn’t hit any snags. But if you do encounter a problem, it’s going to be up to you which strategy to pursue since you’re the one paying the bills. In separate postings I’ll talk about how to find the help you need, and how to handle the process yourself. Or contact me directly through this site and I’ll see if I can steer you in the right direction.
Read more about clearing a difficult permit here.