The time is right for Ottawa’s Client Relationship Leader program
Today, it takes five to seven years for a typical plan of subdivision approval to move through the City of Ottawa. It used to take two to three years. Increasing delays for permits and approvals have negative impacts for homebuyers, the 25,000 people working in Ottawa’s homebuilding industry and Ottawa taxpayers.
The City of Ottawa Planning Department has recently introduced a Client Relationship Leader pilot project in an attempt to reduce the permitting and approval times for major homebuilding projects. The program assigns a representative to a project, who is tasked with supporting the project as it moves through the permitting and approvals process.
It is regrettable that the Client Relationship Leader pilot project has come under criticism for providing an unfair advantage to builders and developers. Critics are concerned that the program will diminish the voice of interested citizens and community groups in Ottawa’s land use planning and development processes.
The challenge of navigating the permitting and approvals process
The delays facing homebuilding projects are due to the increase in the amount of regulation of homebuilding and the complexity of the regulatory process. Combined, these have added four years to a typical homebuilding project involving a plan of subdivision, which allows for the division of a large tract of land into smaller pieces that can be sold separately.
There are numerous permits and approvals required before a plan of subdivision is issued. Responding to these requirements involves the conduct of studies, consultations with the community and the submission of plans to more than twenty-five city and provincial departments and agencies for review and approval. As the process continues, additional plans covering detailed engineering, environmental and design issues are required. In support of this process, homebuilders must bring together teams of consultants with expertise in planning, the environment, building, infrastructure, government and other fields.
Once a builder has completed the required studies and plans, they are submitted to the Planning Department which circulates them to the appropriate branch or department within the city bureaucracy. Herein, lies the major regulatory challenge for builders. Each department and branch has its own set of questions and comments about the proposed plans and studies, requiring on-going communications between the builder and the Planning Department. Shepherding the plans through and across different divisions and agencies within the city is a labour-intensive, time consuming, costly process.
Ottawans working in the public service can appreciate the challenge of moving “files” through the system. Effective public servants are those who understand how to move projects along where support, permissions and approvals are required from other units within a department and even across departments. This is the challenge facing homebuilders when it comes to moving planning approvals, across the entire City of Ottawa administration.
For smaller homebuilders working on residential infill projects, delays in permitting and approvals can quickly turn a project into a money losing venture. Delays in infill projects are threatening the livelihood of this sector that has sprung up in response to our city’s intensification policy.
Delays impact everyone
Delays in permitting and approval matter because the impact affects us all – homebuyers, people and families working in the homebuilding industry, and Ottawa taxpayers.
For homebuyers, delays mean that move-in dates can change. Those of us who are fortunate to have bought a home understand the stress that comes with financing, closing dates, buying and selling at the same time and moving. The last thing a new homebuyer needs is uncertainty around move-in dates.
Delays in permitting and approvals can also lead to higher new home prices. When you add four years onto a project, resources and capital are left idle during this time. Homebuilders are required to carry the cost of the land for that time, and these costs must be passed on to the buyer.
For the 25,000 people who work in Ottawa’s homebuilding industry, delays in permits and approvals means less work, lay-offs and pay cuts. Because of our lengthy winters, Ottawa has a short homebuilding period. When we can build, we need to have the permits in place so that people can work.
Ottawa’s economy suffers when building project approvals are delayed. Homebuilding is one of the largest employers in Ottawa, contributing $1.5 billion dollars per year in wages to the local economy. Delays mean less building activity and less building activity means fewer people working and less money coming into our communities. Speedier approvals and less red tape are one of the ways that our municipal government can contribute to Ottawa’s economic development.
It’s about City Building
There are many opportunities for residents and community associations to provide input on planning related decision-making. Ottawa’s Official Plan and Community Design Plans are built on citizen and community input. Applications for zoning changes require a public notice and a public commenting period. Before a building permit is issued, project proponents are required to participate in a 12 step Development Application Review process that includes multiple opportunities for public input on the proposed plan. None of these processes or time periods are impacted or changed by the Client Relationship Leader pilot project.
Delays in permitting and approvals have been a source of increasing concern for Ottawa’s homebuilding industry. These concerns started to emerge as a result of the 2001 amalgamation that created the City of Ottawa. The Client Relationship Leader pilot project should be heralded as an innovation with the potential to save taxpayer money, foster needed economic development and help new homebuyers.