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Permit-application backlog prompts White Rock to seek outside help

Council approves recommendation to boost planning-staff numbers ahead of budget
White Rock City Hall. (File photo)

A “significant” backlog of building-permit applications has the City of White Rock looking for temporary outside help to reduce the review and approval timeline.

As well, council on Monday (Feb. 13) pre-approved the hiring of two additional permanent staff for the city’s planning department, in an effort to make a difference sooner rather than later.

Chief administrative officer Guillermo Ferrero described the thumbs-up as “great news.” It came in response to a recommendation he made to move forward with the search ahead of the upcoming 2023 budget approval, which is still months away.

Now, “we are getting on with the postings as soon as possible,” Ferrero said.

It doesn’t mean the positions will be filled overnight, however. With a shortage of skilled resources to appeal to, “this may take some time,” Ferrero said.

“However, we will do our best to move as fast as possible to have them filled.”

The issue of permit delays was raised during council’s Jan. 30 meeting, when a commercial property owner asked why “no progress whatsoever” had been made on an application that was submitted on her behalf last summer.

Paula Venegas said she was told by city staff in August that the wait time for processing such applications was “around five months.”

“So, that would’ve been, essentially, now,” Venegas said.

However, city staff told her last September, and again in early January of this year, that they were still working on applications from April 2022, she said, noting a staffing shortage was cited as among key reasons for the backlog.

Ferrero told council about his staffing quandary at that meeting; that efforts to address the issue were hampered by having to wait for the final budget approval.

Friday (Feb. 10), in sharing his plan to recommend the pre-approval, he noted the OK would come with a caveat: it doesn’t guarantee the positions will be filled quickly, as there is “huge” competition for the limited resource.

“We can’t just pay more,” Ferrero said. “Our rates are unionized and set by a collective agreement. Why would you work for me if you can get probably a little more money working a few blocks away?”

As well, approving the hires ahead of the budget “removes the possibility to have further discussion,” he said.

“Once I hire, I hire, so council needs to be sure.”

In all, the city needs to add four people to its planning department in the next four years, he said. Hiring three would require a one per cent property-tax increase, he noted.

Ferrero said he could not speak to Venegas’ application, citing privacy, but said in general, the permit problem is rooted in a combination of factors. Among those is “quite a bit” of turnaround that occurred in the planning department in 2021, including the departure of the city’s director of planning and development services, who left that October to work in a similar capacity in another municipality. His seat remained unfilled for nearly eight months, Ferrero said.

READ MORE: City of White Rock hires new director of planning

The manager of planning left three months after the director, Ferrero added, and efforts to fill a building-inspector vacancy – posted in November – have also yet to bear fruit.

While all of this took place, the COVID-19 pandemic “led people to do more” permit-related projects.

Ferrero said in 2020, the city received 140 building permit applications and issued 113 permits. In contrast, with no increase in staffing, 257 such permits were received last year, and 137 permits have been issued so far.

At the Jan. 30 meeting, council endorsed a motion from Coun. Ernie Klassen to direct staff to issue an RFP (Request for Proposal) for temporary contracted services to assist with application reviews.

“We’ve all heard… that the permitting process needs some assistance,” Klassen said.

That RFP, Ferrero told PAN, was posted Friday (Feb. 10). It notes 76 applications awaiting review as of the RFP’s preparation, “significant wait-times for processing applications” and, a desire to reduce those times to an acceptable level.

After the four-week window for responses closes, a report with recommendations will be prepared for council.

Ferrero said it is important to understand that there is more than one “bucket” for permit applications. The reality is there are a number of streams, ranging from that for tenant improvements to that for developments involving official community plan amendments. The latter, he noted, are “probably one of the most complex” applications the city deals with, and can take “several years” to review and process.

Asked about provincial government plans to overhaul permit processing, Ferrero said it’s about streamlining the planning process, including by such means as giving municipalities the ability to remove the requirement for a public hearing for applications that are consistent with the city’s official community plan.

READ MORE: B.C. to overhaul approval process for building houses in hopes of increasing supply

While that hasn’t happened in White Rock as-yet, “I think this council is really looking seriously to see what level of improvement can we make to speed up any application stream, including this one,” Ferrero said.

Ferrero on Friday could not provide an exact processing time for any permit-application stream, but confirmed for tenant-improvement applications, staff are currently still working on those submitted in April 2022.
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Tracy Holmes

About the Author: Tracy Holmes

Tracy Holmes has been a reporter with Peace Arch News since 1997.
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