Tropico Perspective: Permit process should go digital

We are in the middle of moving from our perfect little 810-square-foot home with a to-die-for view in Adams Hill to a larger home just south of Montrose.

If I were a little younger, I might tackle some of the remodeling work without making it legal, but this house has history and comes with 72 pages of permits since 1940. I like to bend the rules sometimes, but with that record and the prospect of Glendale gadfly Barry Allen trying to take undercover photos of our naked kitchen, I thought it best to play this one on the up and up.

For the most part, doing everything with permits wasn’t too stressful, though there were a couple of close calls. When reforms to the design review process gave staff the authority to approve minor remodels over the counter, no one was really sure how that would pan out. My experience thus far is that they are pretty serious about making sure that homeowners and contractors do the right thing and offered help to point them in the right direction.

We had to produce plans, elevations and photos to demonstrate that we weren’t going to ruin the neighborhood by taking out a window. I actually appreciated the sense that if I were pitching a vinyl window, I might be slapped clear into the parking garage.

The mechanical permit process was harder to comprehend. Our project was supposed to be a simple kitchen remodel, but simple wasn't on the menu. It was like going to the mechanic for a tune-up and driving away with new tires, brakes and a rebuilt transmission.

I don’t understand how a house that has sailed through 70 years of California earthquakes with nary a crack needs to be upgraded to 2011 Tokyo standards, but this house will not tip over if even Godzilla sits on it.

Even with more than $1,500 in permits under our belt (so far), I am certainly no expert in navigating the permit process, but I certainly have a few ideas on how to improve it. One of the advantages of not running for anything is that I can throw around big ideas that would make life easier for anyone working with local government and give little thought of how to pay for it. Then again, unfunded promises haven’t stopped politicians yet.

The permit center needs to get dragged into the 21st century. Everything is on paper. Large, folded and rolled paper sheets, stapled to engineering calculations more complicated than my college calculus final, each requiring so many multi-colored stamps and signatures that I felt transported to the movie set of “Brazil.”

It was surreal. It took 3 1/2 hours to approve an over-the-counter remodel and re-stamp the new plans from three departments. Even the checkout process was a cryptic jumble of codes and handwritten notes with a big dollar sign at the bottom.

And staff was never the problem. Once our name was called, it was like a well-oiled machine. The inefficiency of the process, however, was staggering and clearly slowing things down. An easier process would also mean more would comply.

We should be able to pull basic permits online and pay for them at checkout like Amazon.com. We should be able to upload drawings and photos for review online and have staff pull them up at will. They should be able to attach comments electronically so that when different people review the same project, everyone is up to speed.

Clients should be able to schedule inspections online and actually get an appointment confirmation. Having approved plans online means not having to safeguard the stamped set as though it were the Magna Carta.

Making permits part of the online public record ensures that neighbors won't be caught by surprise. It also means they can rat out their neighbor when they do something sneaky.

Switching over to an electronic system of design review and building permits makes sense. More importantly, it lets professionals do their jobs without having to spend half their day pushing paper.

MICHAEL TEAHAN lives in the Adams Hill area of Glendale with a clear view of the Verdugo Mountains so he can keep an eye on things. He can be reached at michaelteahan@espressoresource.com.
 
 

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