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.
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.
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.
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.