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City staff overcome obstacles by issuing an increasing number of building permits

City of Greater Sudbury’s buildings department staff have been facing increased workloads alongside more time-consuming work during the pandemic

With staff facing the double-whammy of increased workloads and the COVID-19 pandemic slowing things down, issuing building permits became more complicated in March 2020. 

That said, City of Greater Sudbury building services director and chief building official Guido Mazza clarified he’s proud of what his staff has been able to accomplish since then.

“Resilient, responsible, conscientious -- all the good words you can come up in the dictionary apply to my staff,” he said

“We’ve had some major challenges and pivots throughout these 18 months, but I can tell you between my managers and my staff, they’ve been incredible. We couldn’t have done it without the teamwork that I see on a day-to-day basis here.”

The province’s benchmark for building permit turnaround is 10 working days, which he said they have been inching beyond, with 2020 recording an average turnaround of 13.7 days. 

However, Mazza added there’s plenty of context to consider, and that his approximately 32-member staff, classified as essential workers since the pandemic hit, has never stopped working to ensure the wheels of construction maintain motion. 

“We are beyond busy,” he said in reference to their attempts to hit the 10-day benchmark. “I would be very surprised if any building department in the province didn’t have that challenge.”

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the construction industry shut down for all but essential projects such as schools, hospitals and emergency permits for things like floods. The industry remained partially shut down until May 19, 2020, when all construction was again deemed essential.

“Despite that fact, we issued more in the way of residential building permit than we did in the pre-COVID year of 2019,” Mazza said, with 445 residential units created in 2020 compared to 309 the previous year. 

Through it all, the city’s buildings services department remained classified as “essential” and was the only municipal department or division to remain consistently working at Tom Davies Square.

Helping the department navigate through the pandemic has been permits and approvals integration manager Denise Clement, who said the most drastic change has been staff accommodating online applications.

“Most of which,” she said, ”were largely incomplete or lacked any amount of information that could be processed in a permit.”

Of the approximately 1,400 applications in the residential sector they saw last year, she said more than 900 were incomplete, which prolonged the application process for clients and the amount of time staff devoted to these cases.

This, Clement and Mazza later explained, is the byproduct of a few COVID-related factors. 

First and foremost, Clement said it’s a lot easier to deal with people face to face, with a quick back and forth between staff and client allowing them to hash out much of the building permit application process’s nuances, as well as any other applications they might be required to file. 

Replacing this with online dialogue and phone conversations has extended the process. 

“There was a lot of back and forth trying to get people to understand,” she said. “There’s still that disconnect of understanding.”

Further, the number of residential applications that were submitted by homeowners who weren’t professional contractors and facing a “steep learning curve” spiked, Mazza said, adding that some of their applications triggered other approvals processes they were unaware of.

“When you’re talking to someone stuck at home, looking at their backyard, looking at their deck or looking at a deck they would like to have, a lot of the terminology we take for granted they might not understand.”

When it comes to the new, more technical side of things in which applicants have been required to submit some materials virtually they would have otherwise dropped off in person, Clement said that even some regular clients have faced challenges. 

While this was happening, Mazza said staff adapted to the ever-changing nature of pandemic-related health measures, and at one time divided themselves in half so that one half worked from home and the other half worked in the office, switching places every two weeks.

“Just in case someone caught (COVID-19) we didn’t want to lose the whole department, and I don’t think I’d be looked at very favorably by council,” Mazza said with a chuckle.

Some staff members have shifted from the third floor to the main floor of Tom Davies Square to accommodate as many in-person meetings as possible. 

Clients’ frustrations showed up early in the pandemic, Clement said, “because there was so much unknown at that time. … Clerks became, essentially, that sounding board for everything COVID-related and still trying to push things forward.”

Despite these challenges and the two-month partial shut-down, a total of 1,893 building permits were issued in 2020, which is down from the 2,143 issued during the last pre-pandemic year of 2019. Certain areas boomed during this time, including residential builds, with 445 residential units created in 2020 -- up from the 309 created the previous year. Applications to have pools installed also jumped, from an average of approximately 30 per year to 156. 

Things appear to be picking up in general, with a total of 1,277 building permits issued so far this year to the end of August, which is up from the 1,161 issued by the same time last year. Of these permits, 170 are for single-family dwellings, which is up from the 106 issued by the same time last year.

Build North Construction Inc. president and CEO Anthony Nutt said he agrees the local economy appears to be on a rebound, noting there’s a lot of private commercial work.

“The owners of these projects are positive about Sudbury and our area,” he said. 

There have been some delays in getting municipal permits, he said, but not “excessively long.” 

Along with everything else within the “circumstances we’re all living and working in right now,” he said a little bit of understanding goes a long way.

“If we require a permit in a faster manner we have made the odd call and they’ve assisted us with whatever the project is,” he said of the City of Greater Sudbury’s buildings department. “They’re a very helpful organization out there.”

Although not everyone has been this understanding, Clement said staff has had to “take it with a grain of salt” because contractors are frustrated by the general situation they find themselves in.

Northeastern Ontario Construction Association executive director Brad Isaac said contractors are faced with fluctuating prices, supply chain interruptions and a shortage of skilled workers. 

“Hat’s off to my team 100 per cent, because despite working countless hours of overtime, being separated from their teammates, being put through the wringer in terms of the court of public opinion, they’ve managed to pull it off … two full seasons,” Clement said. 

“It is an interesting journey that we’ve been through the last 18 months, and it’s not over,” Mazza said. “We are still moving forward.”

New software is expected to come into play soon, which he said will further assist in their work and will include more built-in checks and balances.

A $789,000 renovation is currently underway at the main floor of Tom Davies Square to create a “one-stop shop” to streamline client services, including with the buildings department. The renovation is expected to be completed by the end of the year, but, Mazza said, “like everything else” during these uncertain times, the Jan 1 opening should be viewed as tentative. 

 

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.