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Nov 2017 | The November Issue

BUILDING INSPECTION SUPPORTING ECONOMIC GROWTH IN THE REGIONAL DISTRICT OF NANAIMO
TOM ARMET & GEOFF GARBUTT, REGIONAL DISTRICT OF NANAIMO

The Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) provides regional governance and services throughout Vancouver Island's beautiful central east coast. Communities within the regional federation include the municipalities of Nanaimo, Lantzville, Parksville, and Qualicum Beach, as well as seven unincorporated Electoral Areas. Established in 1967, the RDN is British Columbia's fifth most populous Regional District, of 28 throughout the province, and home to more than 140,000 people. The RDN is a relatively complex region with a combination of very high density urban areas within the member municipalities as well as moderate density urban and suburban styles of development in the unincorporated rural electoral areas. As a result of the relatively low cost of land and development, the RDN has shown considerable growth within both the municipal and rural electoral areas.

The RDN is governed by a Regional Board, comprised of directors from locally-elected municipal councils and directors elected by Electoral Area residents. Through its strategic plans the Board sets out its vision for the region, with economic development, community resiliency and sustainability being at the core of decision making and customer service focus.

 

I. How we got here

 

One of the many services provided by the RDN is building inspection, which plays a fundamental role in advancing the RDN Board of Directors strategic priorities. Since the incorporation of the RDN, building permitting and community planning has always been one of the core functions provided to the unincorporated areas, but it was not compulsory in all seven of the Electoral Areas and development regulation was limited in some areas. In response to provincial initiatives around community sustainability, regional growth management and the requirement to reduce the environmental footprint of building and development, building permitting and community planning was expanded in the late 1980s and 90s. This direction to expand development controls was continued in response to provincial direction/legislation, amendments to the provincial building code and the increasingly complex building techniques.

As the Region moved into the 2000s, it was becoming clear that due to provincial legislation, development pressures and community impacts, more regulatory oversight was required to manage growth, protect the rural lifestyle and balance community preferences.  In 2002, the RDN completed the last comprehensive community planning exercise for the region and implemented land use controls in the form of comprehensive zoning bylaws across all RDN Electoral Areas.

After this work, and in response to provincial legislation, amendments to the building code and the Provincial commitment to manage greenhouse gas, the RDN Board of Directors determined that in order to effectively manage building within the region, that district-wide Building Inspection and permitting was required. In 2010, Building Inspection Service was expanded to include all the Electoral Areas where there was no previous requirement for permitting and inspections.

This move to universal permitting was not without controversy however, and the RDN Board of Directors recognized that in order to continue to support our local economic development initiatives, promote building innovation and to respond to industry and resident’s needs, a made-in-the-RDN approach to permitting was required.

As the Building Inspection Service was being expanded, the local economy was also beginning to recover from the recessionary climate of 2008/2009 that had slowed the pace of construction considerably. The RDN recognized that permit approval and inspection processes needed streamlining to meet the increased pressures from the expansion of the service and increasing growth and construction in the Region. Public input was sought through consultations with builders, online customer surveys and by examining other local government processes with a goal of removing barriers to quick and efficient permit approvals and inspection requests. These consultations identified a broad public desire to shorten permit approval times, expand public information on permitting requirements, and introduce web-based inspection scheduling requests.

The building permit bylaw and accompanying procedures were developed to respond to unique rural requirements for longer building timelines, incorporating innovations such as conditional occupancy and putting in place community outreach educational opportunities on the provincial building code and the RDN Building Bylaw. The RDN invested in two satellite regional building offices outside of our main administrative office in an effort to be accessible to rural builders. An information portal was also developed on our website to support “Owner Builders,” which is a particular wrinkle in the building industry for British Columbia.

In addition, community incentive and rebate programs were introduced to support and encourage the use of local, sustainable materials and other green building techniques. Today, the RDN continues to offer incentives for water and energy usage reduction through the Green Building Incentive Program. Builders and home owners can receive rebates to help with the costs of green building initiatives, such as rainwater harvesting, woodstove exchanges, or renewable energy systems.

With the community input as the impetus, the RDN converted to an electronic property data system as the primary record keeping system for building and development related permits. Permit applications are created and stored electronically and all inspections and other activities relating to permits are managed through this system.

In 2014, the RDN introduced paperless, mobile inspections to replace the former handwritten reports that Building Inspectors completed and gave to the clients. Using mobile devices, Building Inspectors now create their inspection reports electronically, email or text them directly to the client and upload the reports immediately into the CityView system. With over 6,000 inspections a year by RDN staff, mobile electronic inspection reports have resulted in considerable cost savings, both in paper and staff time. Client feedback has been extremely positive with this innovative approach to building inspections.

 

“When local governments streamline their processes, and embrace innovative approaches to customer service, there are direct benefits to the public.”

 

The Region has experienced continued growth in residential development during the past three years at a level higher than the provincial average, both in terms of permit volumes and construction values. This level of growth is expected to continue with the many development projects underway in the Region. In the first six months of 2017, building permit applications jumped 25 percent over the same period in 2016 and 44 percent over the same period in 2015. The value of the construction in the first 6 months of 2017 climbed to over $68 million, an increase of 58 percent in value from both 2016 and 2015.

“It is an exciting time in our region as building activity is reflective of strong economic growth,” said RDN Board Chair Bill Veenhof. “I am proud of the RDN Planning Team who have implemented programs and enablers that have resulted in reduced permit waiting times in a period of significantly increased demand." Through changes to our internal processes and staffing levels, the RDN has been able to greatly reduce the time it takes to approve building permits, particularly at a time of increased construction activity in the Region.

 

ii. Where we are going

 

The RDN is planning ahead to improve its services and meet the challenges of this increased activity over the next few years by introducing innovative approaches in the delivery of building inspection services. By early 2018, residents of the RDN Electoral Areas will be able to apply for their building permits and request inspections through an online portal. The portal will be fully integrated with our current systems and is designed to give the public the option to “self-serve” their building permit applications and inspection requests.

Currently, residents must personally travel to the RDN main office to apply for building permits – often a considerable distance from their homes or offices. Using the portal will eliminate that requirement, saving them time and money.

Under our current systems, Building Inspection staff spend hours taking inspection requests by phone and answering inquiries on the status of permit applications. With the portal, customers will be able to log into their account, send inspection requests and interact with staff on matters relating to their permit.

In conjunction with the public portal, the RDN will be implementing electronic plan reviews, eliminating the need for clients to submit paper plans with their applications. This initiative will drastically reduce the amount of paper used and the space required to store large sets of building plans.

In addition to online permit applications and inspection requests, the public portal will give the public the means to register bylaw complaints and purchase or renew dog licenses. The RDN will be considering other service options through the public portal in our long-term plans.

The regulation of construction through permitting and inspections was historically viewed in some sectors as being a barrier to development and economic growth, particularly in those rural areas where construction wasn’t previously regulated. This is no longer a widely held view as lending institutions, realtors, and insurance providers are increasingly turning to local government for confirmation that buildings are constructed and inspected in accordance with building codes and other regulations. We are proud at the Regional District of the steps taken in recent years to focus on improved service for our community. The continued support by both administration and the elected officials to proactively look ahead and support innovative service enhancements is also greatly appreciated.

There are many local benefits when construction activity is booming in a region and local government is responsive with innovative solutions to streamline processes. Improving and modernizing our service in these manners is a significant step forward that few local governments in North America have yet to implement.

In recent years, the RDN has been recognized for its leadership among Canadian local governments in sustainable community development, improving services and quality of life for residents, while reducing the local environmental footprint and dependence on limited resources. The past and expected improvements to the building inspection services are important in relation to several key priorities in the current Regional District of Nanaimo Strategic Plan 2016-2020. Ensuring the process is more efficient, effective and supportive of the region’s economic growth is in-line with the focus on service and organizational excellence, relationships and economic health with the RDN Strategic Plan.

When local governments streamline their processes, and embrace innovative approaches to customer service, there are direct benefits to the public. The RDN is pleased to be doing its part to ensure permits are approved in a timely fashion as well as planning ahead to improve service and move towards innovative solutions to streamline processes.

For more information on the current Building Permit process, fees and how to book inspections online please visit rdn.bc.ca/building-inspection-services.

 

TOM ARMET is the Manager of Building & Bylaw Services with the Regional District of Nanaimo. Tom has a varied and extensive background in local government and RCMP management, having worked in numerous British Columbia communities. His focus on community service and the use of technology has helped lead changes that are enhancing the delivery of Building Inspection and Bylaw Enforcement services in the Regional District of Nanaimo.

GEOFF GARBUTT is the General Manager of Strategic and Community Development for the Regional District of Nanaimo. Geoff is a professional planner by training with degrees in Political Science (BA) and Planning (Masters of Planning) from the University of Calgary and Queens University respectively. Over the past 18 years he has worked in both the private sector and public sector with municipalities and regional districts in BC. His professional expertise focuses on sustainable community development, public consultation and implementation.

 
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