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Audit scrutinizes Palo Alto's frustrating permit process

Original post made on May 6, 2022

A new audit has found Palo Alto's permit process for solar panels and other home upgrades is hobbled by long lead times for inspections and insufficient communication between city departments.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, May 6, 2022, 9:28 AM

Comments (20)

Posted by Neal
a resident of Community Center
on May 6, 2022 at 10:20 am

Neal is a registered user.

This department is in total disarray and I hope I never have to work with them again. You cannot believe anything you are told by persons working the counter. An inspector can override and nit pick all your work no matter what you've been told by counter personnel.

A year and a half after completing a kitchen and bath remodel, I got a notice telling me my permit was going to expire and I had to apply for an extension and pay a fee of $92. I showed them a copy of my building permit that showed the final inspection was completed and had been signed off by an inspector. They told me the inspector made a mistake and I would have to get an extension. I requested, that since they admitted it was their error, I shouldn't have to pay the $92 fee. They said no way. When I threatened to appeal that decision and took up the issue with the head of the department they relented. What a pain.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 6, 2022 at 10:46 am

Online Name is a registered user.

For this we give them huge raises, huge pay packages, huge amounts of overtime pay and benefits the rest of us can only dream of. And they keep wanting more, more more while delivering less -- on solar permitting, on an unworkable parking permit program with a horrible consultant because we can't expect PA employees to do any work...

And we're expected to support a business tax which will deliver even less money than the "Utility Transfer Tax" which will enshrine their right to continue stealing $20,000,000 each year WHILE they continue to raise our utility rates. (Check out their latest rate hikes!)

Why isn't the City Council demanding decent performance from the city before hiring consultants and new employees to lobby us for MORE money??

Posted by mllcal
a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2022 at 10:50 am

mllcal is a registered user.

We are putting in an ADU, a priority the city wants and is encouraging. The permit process is a hassle with long waits, contradicting requests, and nitpicky inspections which cause even further delays. After reading the article it appears that we’re in for more meetings, more drafts of new procedures, and more handwringing, none of which will change the situation. Typical! We need to look at regulations in other cities and cut out a lot of our red tape. But if history continues to repeat itself, nothing will be done. So sad that our city is so dysfunctional.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 6, 2022 at 10:56 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I think there are many of us who could list the complaints we have experienced apart from the long waits and vaguely worded rules. There are also the fact that many of the homes built in the 50s are not compliant to setbacks or even on their footprints with the county. Fences are not on property lines as they are put in to suit trees.

My biggest complaint though is that when something is inspected and a small amount of work needs to be done, a second inspector comes and finds something the first inspector did not find. The same can be said in the planning office as each official interprets the same rules differently when it comes to older homes being uncompliant or which of several boundary fences is the back fence or the side fence.

Posted by Barron Parker Too
a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2022 at 12:44 pm

Barron Parker Too is a registered user.

Here's another suggestion. As an incentive to significantly improve response to customers needing inspections, the permit fee will be waived if the inspection is not performed within (say) 5 business days. Furthermore, the amount of time elapsed between request and inspection will be recorded in each instance, and the Palo Alto Weekly can display the performance of the city building department with a histogram of wait times for that week.

Posted by Book Em
a resident of Palo Verde School
on May 6, 2022 at 12:52 pm

Book Em is a registered user.

We really need one stop permitting. Walk in the door, meet ALL the relevent city departments, adjust the request to meet requirements on the spot, and walk out with a permit.

It should not take months for a simple electric service upgrade. Denying the permit because a car charger hight above pavement is not specifically noted on a plan is not a good reason to cause a 30 day recycle of the permit process.

Posted by Evergreen Park Renovation
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 6, 2022 at 6:12 pm

Evergreen Park Renovation is a registered user.

Our experience with the Palo Alto permitting "experience" for a simple rewiring and minor remodel was a very bad one. Inspectors late and lacking competence, repeat visits that were not needed, unsupportable demands to our contractor to name a few complaints. It is by far the worst experience with permitting and inspecting that we have had anywhere. When we were getting bids, a number of contractors replied that they were not interested in jobs in Palo Alto because of the nature of the permitting process and inspectors. This drives up costs and results in delays in getting a contractor lined up. Time to let staff go and COMPLETELY rethink the purpose of this department in Palo Alto. Please take this audit finding seriously and not try to sweep these problems under the rug.

Posted by vmshadle
a resident of Meadow Park
on May 7, 2022 at 1:13 pm

vmshadle is a registered user.

The permits are not cheap, and not everyone who lives here is a gazillionaire.

We have ended up paying for more hours and days of both our (licensed) electrician's and (licensed) general contractor's time because the multiplying permit requirements were bizarre, inscrutable, and needlessly complex. (Why, for example, did our GC have to return on his day off to measure the HOUSE, a copy of nearly every other house in our corner of the city, for a simple 7' X 7' bathroom remodel? What on earth do they require for a kitchen or a new addition or complete remodel?!?!??)

This was on top of the delays because of the lack of staff to answer questions or inspectors to inspect within a reasonable amount of time. I estimate that a project that should take about three weeks will be stretched out to six or eight weeks for no good reasons whatsoever.

Furthermore, the requirements were so lengthy, abstruse, and ridiculous that we expected to find out that we would need to apply for a permit just to use the ferschlugginer bathroom when it is completed!

Is this about revenue enhancement or actually enforcing safety codes?

Both contractors (one of whom GREW UP HERE) have vowed they never want to do business again in our fair city. (Meanwhile, we are wearing out our teeth worrying that they will quit before the job is done because of all the city-related hassles.)

Solar panel installation companies won't do business here either because working with the city is so onerous. How, pray tell, will this help Palo Alto to meet its green energy needs?

Come on, City Government. You can do a LOT better than this.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 7, 2022 at 1:57 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

For more than a decade I've wondered if city staff has a clue what plumbers cost ever since my plumber and I tried in vain -- repeatedly -- to apply for a water heater rebate. The system didn't work. No, only licensed plumbers could apply, not the homeowner. No, we can't accept info over the phone. Try again. Etc etc.

The rebate was $25. Guess how many hours Charlie spent trying to file.

I'm now watching with amusement how long it will take the city to respond to an online report of a street light outage.

Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 7, 2022 at 2:44 pm

JR is a registered user.

In my experience, the planning department has been professional, expedient, and helpful. I thank them for the hard work they do to keep construction in the city safe and up to code. Far too many developers try to cut corners in order to make obscene profits, and I have seen the planning department catch them in the act again and again.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 7, 2022 at 4:39 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Remembering how difficult it has been in the past to get someone to come and bid for some project be it large or just a small upgrade. Many contractors or service providers are just not interested in working in Palo Alto for the process delays.

Those who are willing to work here often say it is their first time in Palo Alto, and never again!

And then there are those who criticize the houses that are still in their 1950s condition because owners don't care. I think it is much more that the owners can't afford the time and energy to upgrade a bathroom, kitchen or add anything as they just cannot deal with Palo Alto inefficiency in the Planning Department.

Posted by pa_briones_parent
a resident of Juana Briones School
on May 12, 2022 at 6:58 pm

pa_briones_parent is a registered user.

We love PA, came here deliberately for the schools and community. But it's approval process for improvements sucks. We've done our darndest to be responsible, eg. add solar panels. It took literally over a year for them to approve it. And this was with one of the best, most organized companies in the world doing our work.
Something here is broken, maybe a conflict of interest? I doubt it's just incompetence.

Posted by pa_briones_parent
a resident of Juana Briones School
on May 12, 2022 at 7:01 pm

pa_briones_parent is a registered user.

We love PA, came here deliberately for the schools and community. But it's approval process for improvements sucks. We've done our darndest to be responsible, eg. add solar panels. It took literally over a year for them to approve it. And this was with one of the best, most organized companies in the world doing our work.
Something here is broken, maybe a conflict of interest with utilities? I doubt it's just incompetence.

Posted by scott
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 13, 2022 at 4:21 pm

scott is a registered user.

Our hot water heater installation took a few hours, and was almost refused by the inspector because of a rule that only exists in Palo Alto, doesn't materially advance safety, and is impossible to comply with in our PA-approved complex. Later, we found ourselves paying a construction manager to deal with permits via change orders because he wouldn't take on the risk of dealing with our planning department in his bid.

If City Councilmembers think having a supplemental building code is good, then they should explain what horrific conditions exist in neighboring jurisdictions to support the pain they're inflicting on voters.

What? Life is fine all over the Peninsula and South Bay? And they don't have to pay contractors a premium to deal with permitting?

Set Palo Alto's book on fire.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on May 13, 2022 at 5:53 pm

Annette is a registered user.

It is in the City's own best interests to address all issues. Generally speaking, I think Palo Altans are willing to go electric, add solar, build ADUs, etc. But even the most agreeable, willing person will give up if the process is too frustrating, confusing, or expensive.

Mayor Burt, Councilmember Cormack and several staff members put hours and hours into the S-CAP meetings. To meet the goals, the permitting process needs to improve. That's arguably Step #1 towards a successful transition to reducing GHG emissions.

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on May 14, 2022 at 5:56 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

I recently hired a contractor for our home and we became friends during the brief job. He wasn't terribly happy about Mountain View, but he stated bluntly that he would never do any work requiring permits in Palo Alto ever again. He said that it was totally impossible to get Palo Alto work permits and inspections in 2020 and 2021 because the Department of Planning and Development Services (what a sick joke for a name) employees all were hiding in their offices to collect their salaries and boost their pensions. They didn't answer their phones and they wouldn't schedule on-site inspections. He even tried pounding on their doors and all they did was to ignore him and/or to tell him to go away or they would call the police. What a bunch of cowardly, entrenched, useless bureaucrats. And Palo Alto won't fire them for cause?

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 14, 2022 at 6:31 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Wonder why Palo Alto has the highest construction costs per sq foot in the entire area?

@William Hitchens, yup. One friend is a small residential builder who refuses to build in Palo Alto because of the permitting incompetence. An experienced architect even named the varieties of permitting problems after the relevant staffers -- ie the Sandy Factor as in "Schedule around the Sandy Factor; never submit plans on days "Sandy" worked."

That was about 20 years ago when we had delusions of redoing the kitchen. After listening to the architect explain that idea X would be acceptable if we could avoid "Sandy" and Idea Y would get killed in the final inspection if "Tom" came out, we decided to pass.

And decades later, the problems remain.

Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 15, 2022 at 4:04 am

Citizen is a registered user.

One concrete thing that would help is if Palo Alto would give temporary occupancy permits. Most cities do. You have to complete all work to get a construction loan refinanced to a home loan.

Not having temporary occupancy available means if the inspector thinks you need paint or something relatively minor, or it’s something major that doesn’t affect occupancy, you can’t refinance from a higher rate construction loan to a home loan when the rates are best too. (They say you can close out the permits then pay to apply again; this is not a solution.). This cost us so much $$ for years. A temporary occupancy permit means the place has been made habitable and you can refinance or even live there while you finish the rest of the work.

But I’m really scratching my head at the comments because a neighbor near us was allowed to proceed with a 2nd-story addition without any of the privacy steps in the code, and their inspectors answer was that it’s usually done by greenery which has not only failed to materialize, the neighbor keeps cutting the tree on our side because they don’t like it, even though it was represented on their plans as being much bigger and straddling the properties. I have offered to take it down once they have something else but it’s been years and nothing. In the meantime they keep violating our privacy and damaging our tree.

Planning was completely unresponsive to complaints.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on May 16, 2022 at 6:53 am

Annette is a registered user.

I hope Mayor Burt and the rest of CC are are taking notes here. Even if one "divides in half and subtracts 60" it is clear that the problems are old, persistent, and damaging all the way around. That these problems go back years is an indication that City Manager Shikada and Keane before him let this department function without regard for the end user. It would be interesting to know if developers have the same complaints as residents. Or are residents and their contractors getting poor service b/c developers and their contractors get priority treatment?

If Palo Alto is going to reach its S-CAP goals, our City Manager needs to require that the Planning Department improve its performance in the noted areas of deficiency, and City Council needs to hold the City Manager accountable to that metric. And perhaps raises for the City Manager and key Planning staff should be postponed until there is measurable improvement. Raises and bonuses are tied to performance, right?

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 16, 2022 at 1:00 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

I also would like City Council members to read this thread and the comments.
This is about fundamental government duties - and these should be conducted reasonably to serve this community.
Get the main things operating well.

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