The City of Regina has begun an overhaul of how it issues building permits following numerous complaints from developers, some of whom were threatening to construct elsewhere.
“The comments were starting to be made that capital is mobile,” said city manager Chris Holden. “I can invest in Regina. I can invest in Saskatoon. I can invest in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary — and the current environment in Regina is not supportive of us making investment.”
In July 2019, after hearing “far too many” complaints from developers frustrated with the length of time it was taking to receive a permit, the city began an extensive review of its processes. The resulting report, which included feedback from not only individual developers but construction associations and other industry representatives, was presented to the priorities and planning committee in early 2020.
“We weren’t consistent. We weren’t predictable and we probably weren’t as efficient in terms of our processes,” Holden said.
Regina has introduced new software that allows applications to be submitted electronically and implement technology that allows revision by various city departments simultaneously.
The city is also going to more closely consider the merits of issuing conditional permits to developers.
“They get to start their development. They get to start construction on their foundation and then we work through some of the other details that in the past would hold or stop a project,” Holden said.
‘Clearly falling short’
The 64-page Building Permits and Inspections Service Review compares Regina’s permit approval times to other major prairie cities.
Where Regina was taking an average of 43 days to process a residential permit, Saskatoon takes five, Winnipeg takes 11 and Calgary takes 21. Commercial permits are more complex, but Regina was taking an average of 65 days to issue one of those, whereas Saskatoon was taking 25-50 days, Winnipeg 1-29 and Calgary 49-56.
Regina only has eight staff members reviewing applications while Saskatoon has 17, meaning each staff member in Regina is theoretically saddled with a heavier workload. However, the permit-per-person workload in Winnipeg and Calgary is higher than in Regina and processing times in both of those cities are still considerably faster.
“We were clearly falling short in terms of our approval times and our processing times,” Holden said.
For 2020, with the technology updates, Regina’s goal is to approve residential permits in 10 days and commercial permits in 20.
Going into 2021, the city hopes to cut those times in half again to approve residential permits in five days and commercial permits in 10.
“If we achieve that, we will have one of the fastest approval processes in the country,” Holden said, recognizing its an aggressive goal.
Recruitment and retention challenges
Holden said the city has yet to determine whether it needs to add staff to meet its 2021 goals.
While he noted Regina may have been too focused on stringent regulation in the past, “we can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that something is not being built safely,” he said, adding it would be a “huge liability” to the city if something fails.
One ongoing challenge is recruiting and retaining higher-level positions. The city has two vacancies right now, Holden said.
“Part of that is our staff, in terms of their experience level, knowledge level,” he said. “We have some junior employees. Building code staff are, they’re not in abundant supply. There’s a shortage of those technical folks with that kind of expertise.”
Regina has hired an external consultant to assist during staff turnover as well as during the construction season when the city receives a high volume of applications.
He said in the last two months of 2019, the city did achieve its goal of five days to approve residential permits.
“It is the quietest time of the year. What we want to make sure is that as we ramp up and we head into construction season that we have first of all, internal resources but if we are challenged in terms of meeting the demands that we have an external consultant who can assist us so that we can stay on top of those targets,” Holden said.