Paper Cut

Electronic permitting launches in Elk Grove

Back Article Jul 1, 2011 By Linda DuBois

Builders trying to get plans approved by a city government all know the drill: Make the plans, and bring them to city hall. The city marks them up for revisions. Then you drive back to city hall, pick up the plans, send them off to consultants, make changes, print out hundreds of new pages and drive the new set of plans back to city hall or to another office or agency. Repeat. Repeat again. And maybe again.

That’s beginning to change in the city of Elk Grove. The city recently unveiled a Web-based electronic plan submission, review and tracking system that allows the city’s building permit customers to manage a plan review with the click of a mouse. They can upload files and track the status of a project review anytime, anywhere, using an Internet connection.

The city building department started using the Electronic Plan Checking, or E-Plan, program in February. The public works and planning departments are making adjustments to suit their specific needs and should be online with it by the end of the year, if not sooner, says Rick Renfro, Elk Grove’s chief building official. The city is also working with its contract agencies, such as the fire department, water agency and environmental health, to get them on board.

Renfro says even with only one department using the system, it saves customers paper and gas money, but adds, “it will be a lot more effective when all the development departments are set up on it.”

When this happens, the system can reduce turnaround time by distributing documents to multiple departments simultaneously.

Here’s how it would work. The applicant would come to City Hall to file the initial building permit application and pay the plan review and zone check fees. Within minutes of filing, the builder would receive an email that contains a username, password and Web link to access the project. Email notifications would follow throughout the project, alerting the builder of comments or items requiring action.

Potentially, the only other visit to City Hall would be at the end of the process to sign final documents.

But until outside agencies come on board, any projects that require plan review or payment of fees to those agencies will require a visit to the Building Department for sign-offs and receipts.

Eliminating the extra steps would be not only better for the customer but also for the city. It would support its green initiatives by saving paper, gas and storage and would make the process much easier for staff. “Both sides of the counter would benefit,” Renfro says.

Renfro has heard of several jurisdictions and private consulting companies already using a similar technology.

“One of the private consulting companies I’ve worked with in the past went to an electronic program quite a few years ago for energy projects, and they’ve just saved tons of money in shipping and paper and transportation and storage,” he says. “The blueprints or building plans for a power plant can take up a whole room.”

SunGard Public Sector, the manufacturer of the system used by Elk Grove, has 12 customers throughout the country using the program. It uses a sustainability calculator as a marketing tool to roughly estimate cost and energy savings for a jurisdiction. Such data includes the number of plan review requests received annually, the number resubmitted, the average miles driven to submit plans, the number of plan sets required by all departments, etc. For ballpark estimates, certain assumptions are made about variables such as the cost per gallon of gas or average printing costs, but these can be adjusted for more precise estimates.

Elk Grove issues an average of 2,860 building permits a year. Assuming the number was an even 3,000, that city could save up to 312,000 miles of driving and 20,800 gallons of gas; 457,600 pounds of carbon monoxide emissions; $57,200 in fuel costs; 12,480 hours of driving; 192,000 pounds of paper (239 trees); and about 12,000 pounds of paper requiring storage.

Serving as Elk Grove’s E-Plan guinea pig was the Carlton Plaza proposal, a nearly 109,000-square-foot assisted living complex with 111 units as part of Carlton Senior Living, which owns several facilities in Sacramento and the Bay Area.

Despite the city’s best efforts in putting plenty of time and resources into training staff and making sure the program was running right before it was launched, there were a couple of minor technical glitches. Other than that, the process was smooth and showed huge potential, says the project’s architect Michael Braswell of LPAS, known for regional projects such as Sutter Brownstones and the California Highway Patrol Headquarters.

Braswell says he’s dealt with “hundreds” of plan review processes in his career, and it’s the first time he’s heard of an electronic system. “It’s kind of an exciting advance. … We can’t wait until everybody goes that way,” he says, noting the potential for cost savings.

“On a good-sized project, the plans are huge — hundreds of sheets that cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Plus there’s the cost and time of driving down to Elk Grove,” he says. “It’s also the green thing to do, instead of wasting all that paper.”

In fact, Elk Grove is hoping the new system will reduce paper use by up to 80 percent.

Braswell says such a system could also save a lot of time, particularly with a city like Elk Grove that isn’t full-service and requires multiple contacts with various offices and agencies.

Renfro says he would have rather launched the system with a smaller project than Carlton Plaza. “It really is a big project, so it’s not the test we would have chosen,” he says. “But it also got us right into the mix.”

So far, Elk Grove is the only local city with an electronic review system, but Sacramento is working on one. Elk Grove officials say this lead will put pressure on other agencies and municipalities to get on board. To encourage this, Elk Grove opened its training for agency staff in other cities at no cost.

The city has provided training on the electronic system for the Sacramento County Assessor’s Office, water agencies, regional sewer and sanitation districts and environmental health, among others. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development has contacted Elk Grove about the system. It wants to create a statewide streamlined process for permitting installations of electric-vehicle charging stations.

“We’ve been working with their representative in a regional committee that consists of cities and counties in Northern California to create a statewide electronic uniform procedure to streamline permitting processes,” says Christine Brainerd, Elk Grove’s public information officer.

Renfro says he and all the city staff are enthusiastic about the prospects for electronic reviews.

“It’s not even the technology of the future because it’s already available, but I think we’ll see more cities on board with it,” he says. “Its potential is huge.”

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