A perfect storm of factors, including staff shortages, April’s cyber attack, and an unprecedented number of home renovation applications, has created a hefty backlog of building and development permits at Whistler’s municipal hall.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) confirmed there are currently 235 building permits and 52 development permits in process, spread out across just three full-time plan checkers and three building inspectors.
“The majority of those are active files and it makes sense to me now when I walk back there and I see the plan checkers with stacks of paper all over their desk, all over the floor, on the desk beside them,” noted James Hallisey, general manager of infrastructure services.
The gruelling workload has led to lengthy delays in processing and response times—Hallisey said it’s not unusual for planners to take up to 16 weeks to get to a file—adding frustration for builders and homeowners at a time when permit applications have skyrocketed in the pandemic.
“I think it’s definitely something that weighs heavily on the building team. They aim to provide good service, and the fact that they are so overworked with a large workload means they aren’t getting to communication as quickly as they should be,” said municipal CAO Virginia Cullen, noting that there has been some restructuring of roles in the department to help mitigate the delays.
One homeowner, who asked to remain anonymous with permits still in process at muni hall, said the lack of clarity and communication from staff on their home renovation plans led to numerous delays since the applications were first filed last spring.
“Some of this time was for us to engage with architects to provide additional information back to the building department that supported the scope of the renovation. These were new items not initially requested as part of the initial permit application,” they said in an email. “A good portion of this time was waiting for the (RMOW) to get back to us (i.e. not responding to emails or phone calls when we needed to confirm requirements). A good portion of the delay was because of ‘moving goal posts’—e.g. when only after MANY inspections the muni introduced new requirements that needed to be addressed before the renovation could continue.”
Now hoping to complete the renovation by October, the delays had “a cascading effect” on the availability of tradespeople, said the homeowner, who estimated they have spent just under $10,000 in extra costs, including outside services to address the building department’s additional requirements, storing furniture and renting an Airbnb for an extended time while the work was ongoing.
Compounding the issue was the April ransomware attack that handcuffed the municipality’s digital services and left staff without access to email for six weeks.
“It was actually pretty beneficial to us through the whole cyber attack incident to be a paper-based system in the planning department, but in the long term that’s not really the place we want to be,” Hallisey said. “We need to be a lot more digital. But we envision a two-year project to get to fully digital applications, and there’ll be temporary staff that we bring in for that two-year period to make that happen.”
The RMOW said it is actively recruiting planners and expects to add another building inspector soon, a position that is in high demand across the province. But staffing is far from the only contributor exacerbating the situation; both the number and complexity of applications have risen during the pandemic.
“There isn’t many simple builds getting done anymore. There’s not that many flat lots that get built on; there’s not many nice, rectangular houses,” Hallisey said. “These are complicated houses on steep slopes, often encroaching into the setbacks and things like that just because that’s what they have to do to make it work on that challenging lot.”
Changes to the BC Building Code have also added extra layers of complexity for both builders and planners to sift through.
“Construction has become vastly more complex and I love it because it is complex. It’s exciting and dynamic and hard to do and different every day, but it is as complex now as I have ever experienced due to changes in the code,” said Tim Regan of award-winning builders Vision Pacific.
The construction sector is facing its own hurdles in the pandemic, namely the same labour crisis practically every industry is experiencing locally, as well as COVID’s disruption to the supply chain.
“Never in my 30 years of being in this business … have I ever known this kind of supply-chain complexity,” Regan said.
It’s not hard to imagine the knock-on effects such a backlog is having on a sector that has long been a major economic driver locally, but there are other, indirect consequences for the community as well.
Andrea Mueller, local painter, art instructor and mother of a two-year-old son, said the backlog could leave local families scrambling for daycare if the new Creekside Kids facility in Rainbow doesn’t open as originally planned this September.
“Creekside Kids is basically something that, for a lot of the young moms who have been struggling over the past year or so, we’re really counting on,” she said, noting that her son has been on “pretty much every daycare waitlist in town” since he was born. “[My son] was supposed to go there; I was only able to get him in for two days a week, which is still a huge opportunity for me. That’s half the price of what I’m paying right now for a full day worth of daycare.”
The delays have led a handful of local moms, Mueller included, to pen letters to the RMOW asking for the Creekside Kids permit to be expedited, given the level of demand for childcare here.
“The key values in the department are fairness and integrity, and if we start expediting certain projects based on priorities that won’t necessarily be consistent across the community, we could end up with issues,” Cullen said.
“We know that these wait times are causing hardships for businesses and residents. We are working diligently to resolve these delays and we know it’s frustrating and also appreciate everyone who’s been patient and understanding and most of all respectful to our staff during both COVID and the cyber incident.”