City of Fernie city hall. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)

Opinion: On planning and permits

Writer’s Block column by Bill Phillips

Old timers may remember me. Hate to say it, but it’s true.

Returning to the city after my journalism career took me away more than 30 years ago, I now look to the white-haired, walker-wheeling folks for a familiar face (not quite, but close).

After stints in Kimberley, Invermere, Williams Lake, and Prince George it was time to head back south and come home to Fernie.

We’re building a house on the family farm out on Dicken Road.

So, when I read a Free Press story last week about building permit wait times in Fernie, it piqued my interest. We’re building in the regional district, so it’s different and, hopefully, better.

We waited just under three months for our building permit and, while City of Fernie planning manager Derek Cimolini blames improperly filled out applications for much of the woes in Fernie’s delays, I can tell you our delay was entirely at the regional district level (but that’s a story for a different time).

The Free Press story said it takes the city, typically, six to 12 weeks to review an application. Doesn’t sound too bad, except that’s not quite the entire story. The worrisome stat is that the time between applications being submitted to permits being issued ranges from 10 weeks to 27 weeks. That’s six months.

The story also stated that permits have been issued for 82 new housing units in Fernie so far in 2021. So, worst case scenario, that’s 41 years of cumulative waiting for permits for new houses (82 houses at six months wait each) this year. Best case scenario, that’s 15 years, seven months cumulative waiting for permits.

And that’s just for new houses. It’s not counting renovation permits, or permits to build a new shed or a new deck. So, there’s a whole lot of waiting going on.

That delay costs everyone money. Everyone’s situation is different but similar. Here’s ours:

We are lucky, and extremely grateful, that we found a place to rent in Fernie while our house is being built. The three-month delay, for us, means three more months paying rent ($7,000). It also means three months of keeping our stuff in storage ($1,200). And, perhaps most critical, for us it meant going from a summer build to a winter build, which means everything costs more i.e. concrete has to be heated, snow removal, etc.

All told, the delay will likely add $10,000 to $15,000 to the cost of our house, maybe more. Extrapolate that to 82 houses with a six-month wait rather than three and we’re talking a lot of money.

“It is having a big negative impact on our local economy that filters down to all retail including coffee and lunch places as well as restaurants and pubs in the evening,” Simon Howse general manager of Parastone Developments told The Free Press in May.

While he agreed with Cimolini that incomplete applications are a problem, that’s not the only issue.

“It’s also a breakdown in communication between planning and building – something that’s been consistent over the past 10 years,” he said.

I agree. And even so, if that’s the problem then the city should look at simplifying permit applications … write them in English rather than bureaucratese, perhaps.

In addition, maybe the planning department and/or building permit department needs more staff.

In September, the city received a $171,875 grant to improve its development permit process. That money will potentially be put towards developing a tool on the city website to let prospective developers know what the current waiting period is for development applications. That doesn’t help reduce wait times so hopefully the city will use that money to actually cut wait times.

What is clear is that the city needs to do something.

-Bill Phillips is a 30-year veteran of journalism. He grew up in Fernie and began his career at The Free Press in the 1980s.