Good luck getting a building permit

Bureaucracy overshadows American ideals of homeownership, entrepreneurship

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Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series.

Last time we heard the story of Dan Ludwig, a cabinetmaker who came to America in 1955, built himself a workshop in his backyard, and went on with the business of making a living.

But times have changed, and not for the better. Here’s how things might go for Dan if he’d been an immigrant in the year 2011 instead of 1955.

Dan is at the counter of his local planning department, applying for a permit to build his workshop:

Building official (staring into a computer screen): "Hmm, your property isn’t zoned for commercial or light industrial usage — you’ll need to get a variance (the official grabs a thick sheaf of formwork and hands it to a bewildered Dan). Here’s the application. They don’t grant many of these variances, but of course you’re welcome to try.

"You’ll need to contact all your neighbors within a 300-foot radius so they’ll have an opportunity to comment on your proposal. You’ll also need to give the design review board complete drawings of the workshop, so we recommend that you hire an architect if you can’t do it yourself.

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"You’ll also need to submit photos of the 20 houses closest to yours so we can verify that your workshop’s design is in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.

"We’ll need a color board showing the proposed finishes for the workshop, including the roof color, the trim color, and the color of the windows. By the way, just a friendly suggestion regarding the color choices — the design review board likes colors that are tasteful and harmonious.

"You know — beiges, tans, whites. What’s that? Yellow? No, I don’t think they’ll go for yellow. You’ll probably want to tone it down a little. Talk to your architect. He’ll know exactly what the design review board likes to see.

"Now, this workshop you’re proposing is 10 feet tall and it’s near the neighbor’s property line, so you’ll have to provide a shadow study demonstrating that its height won’t adversely impact your neighbor’s natural light. Also, will those woodworking machines be noisy? They will? Well, here’s a copy of our noise ordinance. Basically, the louder the noise, the less time you’re allowed to produce it.

"What’s that? Your table saw will be running a lot of the time? Well, you’ll probably need to do extensive soundproofing. You may want to hire an acoustical engineer to show that your shop’s noise won’t be a nuisance to the neighborhood, or the staff is likely to deny your variance.

"When you have your submittal package together, Dan, you can get on the planning commission’s agenda. They meet once a month. If you don’t get an approval the first time — and you probably shouldn’t expect that — we’ll carry your application over to the next month, and so on.

"Remember, any of your neighbors can object to your building a workshop, so you should probably do some lobbying. What’s that? Your English isn’t so good? Well, you can always hire a consultant to present your project for you. OK, now here’s a schedule of the submittal fees …"

And so it goes. Most likely, our present-day Dan Ludwig will go home and forget about building his shop. One less entrepreneur on the roster.

Next time: Why it’s so tough to get anything built these days, and a simple regulatory change that could help break the logjam.

Read Arrol Gellner’s blog at arrolgellner.blogspot.com, or follow him on Twitter: @ArrolGellner.

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