Clearing a Difficult Permit – How To Survive the City Planning Department

The first thing you have to understand in dealing with the city is that the Planning Department is a vast conspiracy out to make the process as confusing as possible.  Inspectors put in their ten or twenty years toying with our emotions and testing our patience with the sole objective of guaranteeing themselves a second, far more lucrative career in retirement as consultants, helping us navigate the Kafkaesque labyrinth that they, themselves, created.  A trip to the Planning Department makes the DMV look as efficient as the German railroad.

 

Normally you wouldn’t have to put yourself through this agony – it’s your architect’s or contractor’s job.  But if you’re “G.C.ing” the job yourself (serving as your own designer and general contractor), then this is one of the prices you’ll have to pay. 

 

There is another reason you might find yourself going to the Planning Department.  If your job is complicated and your architect and/or contractor  – or even a hired consultant – is hitting a snag, it can be beneficial for the homeowner to try and do it.  The clerks at the planning department can be competitive and cranky with professionals who they know don’t have a personal stake in the endless run-around.  And they all have a shared financial stake in perpetuating the system.  But when confronted with an actual homeowner who, as a taxpayer, is directly paying their salary, they tend to be far more deferential and helpful.

Actual photo of the City Planning Department

Actual photo of the City Planning Department

 
If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of going to the Planning Department yourself to push along a sticky permit (also known as the tenth circle of Hell), here are ten important tips:
 
 

 

1.  Go alone.  Letting them see you getting coached from your architect or contractor waiting in the wings will appear manipulative.  If your architect or contractor does go with you, have them wait out-of-sight in the cafeteria.

 

2.  Play dumb.  Be helpless.  You don’t know anything.  You’re just a know-nothing homeowner, not a professional in the home building or renovation business.  You have no pre-conceived notions as to how the process works, you’re just a citizen bumbling your way through it.  The less you know, the more helpful they’ll be.

 

I know nutink!

I know nutink!

3.  Give as little information as possible.  Do not volunteer any information that is not asked in that specific encounter.  If you know why there’s a problem, do not bring it up.  You know nothing.  See if this clerk catches it himself.  If they don’t, you may glide through without a problem.  And if they do catch it, act surprised – even bewildered – and they may find a work-around right there on the spot.

 

4.  Be nice!  Be nicer than you’ve ever been in your life.  Nice, polite, patronizing and empathetic.  The first time I tried to handle a problem permit myself, I stormed in with my contractor in tow, pounding my fists on the counter, demanding to see someone in charge and refusing to leave until I got my way.  Believe it or not – this didn’t work!  The planning supervisor simply dug his heels in deeper (and threatened to call the police to have me carried out.)  I’ve had much greater success channeling Mr. Rogers and being as sweet as a box of chocolates.  While waiting for your number to be called, watch the clerks at the counter and wait for the nicest one.  Once approaching the desk, compliment him or her on how smart and efficient they seem compared to their colleagues.  Better yet, say that everyone told you to see them, specifically, because they have the reputation as being the best at what they do.  Then listen caringly as they complain to you about their co-workers.  Compliment them on their tie, earrings, hair, whatever.  If you overheard them talking to a colleague about their recent vacation, then tell them how rested and refreshed they look – did they just return from vacation?  If you see pictures of children on their desk, gush about how they are the most beautiful children you’ve ever seen in your life.  I think you get the idea.
 
5.  Listen.  And care.  I’ve sat for nearly an hour listening sympathetically to a clerk talk about her sciatica, her no-good ex fiancé, and her recent vacation before we ever got to the business at hand.  By the time we did, we were not only best friends but kindred souls.  She became my advocate throughout the rest of the process.  I expect we’ll be exchanging Christmas cards this year.
 

 

 

6.  Be patient.  Even if you’ve followed my advice so far, this could still be a lengthy endeavor.  You can either be miserable or you can make a game of it and have fun.  Clear your calendar for a couple weeks ahead.  Pretend you’re on a scavenger hunt.  Clap your hands with glee and say “oh goodie!” with every new hurdle they put in your way.  I’ve spent weeks, six-seven hours a day filing a case.  With a case file as thick as a stack of New York City phone books, every day my clerk would find one more thing that was needed.  Then every time she reviewed it with her supervisor, he’d find reasons to have me re-write everything again.  But you are there to do whatever it takes for your case to sail through smoothly without getting kicked-back with comments or modifications – so welcome every new wrinkle.

 

7.  Be respectful.  Try to pretend you’re NOT dealing with Patty and Selma from the Simpsons and that you are dealing with a smart, capable person who will become your newest most cherished best friend.  These clerks do not get any respect from anyone else, so showing them the littlest amount will go a long way.

 

8.  Know that there’s no single solution to your problem.  You will get a different answer from everyone you ask – be they permit consultants or even Planning Department staff members.  I once had a case that turned from a simple over-the-counter permit to an 8-month variance to a 6-week “zoning adjustment”.  Go figure.

 

9.  Go early!  Get there in the morning – between 8 and 10AM is best while they day is fresh and planners are in a good mood.  By 11 they’re thinking about lunch so they don’t want to deal with any difficult cases that might take too long, and by afternoon, they’ve had their fill of angry applicants and difficult cases so they’re tired and cranky.

 

10.  Did I mention be nice?  If you’re like me, it will take every ounce of will-power you have not to have a complete meltdown.  I can’t say I’ve always succeeded in avoiding that.  Run out of the building and find a private place to scream at the top of your lungs, if you need to.  Just don’t unleash on the dimwits behind the counter.  (Oops!  Did I say that out loud?)

 

Read all about working with a permit expediter here.

 

What you want to build

What you want to build

 
What the city will approve

What the city will approve

What Is a Permit Expediter and Do I Need One?

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.