By Gregg Fishman.
Nestled in the heart of California’s Foothills and awash with Gold Country history, Nevada County might not seem like a hotbed of building and construction. However, with many old, historic homes, and more people wanting to live in the bucolic landscape of the Foothills, Nevada County has more than its share of both new construction and remodeling activity.
In fact, the Nevada County Building Department used to have a backlog of requests for permits and plan reviews, partially because of the sequential process they had in place when several different departments needed to review the same project. Now, much of that backlog is gone because of an innovative process they put in place that simplifies obtaining a building permit for many projects. It didn’t cost any money and it didn’t take any additional resources. All it took was rethinking the existing process and trying to approach it from the customer’s standpoint.
“The Over the Counter Wednesday Plan Review Program is really simplistic. I think that’s the beauty of it” said Craig Griesbach, the Director of the Building Department. “Instead of sometimes taking 2-4 weeks to get plans reviewed by all these different departments and agencies, certain projects can come in and get their plans reviewed by several departments on the same day.”
How do you condense what could be a four-week process into a day or so? First, the homeowner, contractor or architect makes an appointment. Based on the initial information about their project, the Building Department will have people from the Planning and Environmental Departments ready to review the plans at the same time. Any questions can be asked and answered on the spot, and any concerns or changes to the plans can be addressed right away. In many cases, the permit can be issued after a single meeting instead of a sequential back-and-forth process that could take weeks.
“It takes one more hold-up out of the equation,” said contractor Brendan Fowler as he showed off a historic home he was rebuilding in the heart of Nevada City. “It gives you a start time, and that’s why it’s so important, from my perspective. It allows you to schedule work behind that and it just helps a lot!”
“My clients want to know if they’ll be able to have Thanksgiving or Christmas (in their newly remodeled home) and if I have a firm start date, I can give them a pretty good estimate of when I’ll be done.”
More complex projects that entail significant environmental or land use issues might not be able to use this streamlined process. But for many remodels, additions, new decks or other projects, the Over the Counter Wednesday Plan Review Process is a real time-saver. It has reduced the backlog of plan review and permit approvals, which in turn allows for faster service for the more complex projects, too.
“I see it from the customer’s perspective,” said Griesbach. “I want them to have a good experience and I want them to come back. And if there were 20 Building departments out there, I would want us to be the number one for customer service.”
Of course, there’s only one Nevada County Building Department, but its focus on improving the process and providing better, faster customer service exemplifies the concept of “best practices” in California Counties.
This Nevada County program is a recipient of a 2017 CSAC Challenge Award, which spotlights the most innovative programs in county government. The Call for Entries for the 2018 awards will be released in April.