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Left Coast / Right Coast: Trials and Tribulations of Getting a Building Permit

Mike Gold living the dream in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: Nancy Gold.
Mike Gold living the dream in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: Nancy Gold.

By Mike Gold, A retired entrepreneur living the dream in the Pacific Northwest.

I recently had the displeasure of getting a building permit for a new house. I say displeasure as the process took over a year and probably aged me ten years. That’s because nothing is simple any more. Each year, the regulating governmental authority adds more rules and regulations to obtaining a building permit. Here are just a few examples:

Septic System: The location is not on town sewer. So each house required a septic system. There is a separate permit for that. You have to hire a geologist to inspect the proposed site for what are called “the drain fields.” The system keeps the “solids” in a large holding tank, but the liquids are pumped into the drain field – which is pipes with holes in them so the liquids can leach into the ground. The geologist has to verify that the ground where the drain field is located is suitable for this “leaching process.” Then the county has to approve the geo’s report and the rest of the system.

Here’s another, House Height: Your house on this block has to be no higher than “X” feet, based upon the shape of the proposed house. There is a very complex formula that you apply to determine the allowed “height.” Our architect calculated that everything was within the limits. But noooo, the county responded with, “Your house is too high.” Our architect had to write a separate report – which was then placed on the plans showing the actual calculations he used. The height was finally approved but it took an additional month (and several thousand dollars) to re-do this work.

Soil Conditions and Retaining Walls: Our lot has a steep slope up behind where the house will be located. Again we had to employ a civil engineer to study the site and recommend how to insure the hill would not “fall down” onto the new house. So we have to build what’s called a soldier wall to keep the ground stable behind the house (another permit required). This requires driving steel beams 25 feet or so into the ground and making this structure part of the foundation of the house. It took two months to work all this out. Then the county required several meetings to review all of this.

The last example is the lot required a so called Boundary Line Adjustment: This needed first to be surveyed, then documented, and then incorporated onto the plans. Then there is a separate process through which you get the Boundary Line Adjustment approved and then recorded with the county. So we approached the recording desk at the county. The woman told us, “Oh, you need a one inch margin around each page.” Our document had approximately a ¾ inch margin on two sides. So we had to then redraw the diagrams with the proper margins. We re-approached the recording desk. She said, “Oh, you need to get a government stamp on the drawings. That’s a separate desk – over there (she pointed).” Another hour standing around waiting. (And a recording fee of almost $300!)

 A total of six permits, some costing thousands of dollars.

It’s not each individual “hurdle” one has to clear. It’s the aggregate of all the hurdles. Just when you think you’re done, another few hurdles appear before you.

Now I’m not the most patient person. When you grow up in New York City, you develop a sort of NY “attitude.” You just assume you have to fight your way through everything you do. So I was definitely the wrong person to be exposed to all of this. We’ve built three homes and this will be the fourth.

In all cases, we let our builder run interference for us. I can honestly say that both the builders we used each had the “Patience of Job.” They were sanguine simply absorbing each delay and hurdle as “the cost of doing business.” I complement them both. They are better men than I.

Having now gone through this experience for the fourth time, I now understand what can drive people to run out of a room screaming at the top of their lungs.

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