October/November/December 2016 Development Services Department Updates

Department Updates

The purpose of this update is to give the reader a progress report of the efforts being pursued at the Development Services Department.  The “Development Services Department Updates” Newsletter serves as an internal communication tool as well as a progress report to all of our stakeholders in and outside the City.  Each group within the umbrella of Development Services serves to provide a brief update of their activities related to the mission and vision of this Department.  These accomplishments stem from the 2016 Action Plan which can be found on our Development Services Webpage. 

October/November/December 2016

Director's Note

Development Services had a year of significant performance in 2016.  In the past 12 months, we experienced a steady number of building permit applications, inspection activity and related customer service.  In all, our staff have issued almost 3,000 permits, handled nearly 14,000 customer interactions at the Development Center, and conducted about 33,000 inspections, which combined accounts for almost $400 million in new construction valuation.  Meanwhile, we have updated all of our building related codes and ordinances to comply with the triennial building code change cycle.  Together with our typical operations and code updates, we completed the first phase of a comprehensive update of all our building fees to ensure the City’s development services are cost neutral.  Meanwhile, our coordination efforts with the other four interdisciplinary departments (Fire, Planning, Public Works, and Utilities) have never been tighter as we experience timelier plan review turnaround.  In contrast to 2015, the number of plan reviews completed in 2016 on time has increased from 83% to 89%.  In this past year, we have implemented a number of new programs by partnering with different departments across the city.  Led by our current building staff, Development Services has nearly completed a Seismic Risk Management Study.  In partnership with the Office of Sustainability and Utilities, we have a final draft of an electrification study ready for City Council review in Q1 2017.  In partnership with both Public Works and Utilities, we are posed to launch a new tool that tracks major disruptions to the public right of way. Finally, the Development Center teamed up with the Public Works Engineering division in the execution of a pilot dewatering program. 

During 2016, we were presented with three major awards.  They included one for innovation in the use of technology, a second for leadership in the area of energy efficiency, and a third for sharing of knowledge in the area of inspection (a press release is forthcoming - sign up here to receive notification).  To help improve our service delivery, in 2015 we created a dashboard that helps measure and monitor our plan review and permit process in Development Services.     Our dashboard gives managers real-time metrics of their unit’s performance.  With the help of this and other tools we have been able to consistently improve performance over the last four years resulting in almost a 22% improvement in plan check turnaround timeliness.  In an effort to reduce customer wait times when scheduling inspections, we recently launched a new smart phone app that allows applicants to easily research and schedule inspections.  To date, over 1,000 inspections have been scheduled using this app and growing.  It was these types of innovations that lead to the Trendsetter Award presented to the Department this past year. 

The Green building team has been particularly busy this year updating and maintaining an industry leading green building and energy code.  The efforts in creating an energy reach ordinance have resulted in the City receiving the 2016 California Energy Efficiency Industry Council Energy Champion Award.  The award was presented to the City by now State Senator Nancy Skinner.  So as to improve the general public’s knowledge of our green initiatives, the city’s new requirements have been outlined in a web-based series of training videos available to the public on the City’s website.  This educational resource has already been utilized over 2,500 times the past year and will be updated to reflect the new code requirements in January 2017.  Continuing this standard of innovative energy policy for the community; the Office of Sustainability and the Utility Departments, are near completion on an electrification study that analyzes cost feasibility, code barriers, and practical implications of switching homes from gas-fired to electric based appliances city-wide.  The results of that study will be shared with the City Council in the first quarter of 2017.   As a final part of Green Building’s efforts, a cross-departmental staffing effort has been underway to update the construction debris recycling and re-use requirements according to new ordinances passed by Council (a press release is forthcoming - sign up here to receive notification).   

In furtherance of the Development Services’ commitment to operating as a cost neutral department, our staff has been working on a comprehensive fee study to correlate the cost of the development fees with the type of work being done.  These fee increases will take effect over time in two phases, the first phase dealing with non-valuation based fees and the second affecting valuation based fees.  For phase one, the Public Works fees increased in 2016 while fire and building fees will be adjusted in 2017.  Phase two of the fee study focused on valuation based fees will begin in the first quarter of 2017 with the hope of completing the process in the same calendar year.

Our project coordination team continues to advocate for an efficient, predictable, and transparent permitting process as they act as both an ombudsman and a single point of contact for the applicant in all of our development-related applications.  The project coordinators seek to ensure that applicants get all the answers to the questions related to development without having to track down numerous departments and divisions.  We continue to consolidate permit activity at the Development Center at 285 Hamilton so as to make the review process as seamless as possible.  Most recently, we transitioned all Noise Exception Permits to the Development Center to help reinforce the one-stop-shop model our applicants enjoy.

The building plan check and inspection groups are committed to the safe and code compliant construction of all structures.  In 2015 we received the highest honor for a building division of Class One from the Insurance Service Organization.  As a Class One building division, we have proven to maintain the highest standards for structural and life safety measures.  In addition, this rating may reduce the cost of home insurance for the community.  In that same spirit in 2016, we received the Industry Leader of the Year Award from the American Construction Inspector Association (ACIA) (a press release is forthcoming - sign up here to receive notification). The award recognizes exceptional educational outreach for the construction inspection community.

In addition to the normal duties of checking thousands of plans and conducting tens of thousands of inspections, the staff has been hard at work updating the state building codes with local amendments to reflect the regional concerns of the City of Palo Alto.  After a review with the Development Center Advisory Group (DCAG), which is composed of a group of well informed and experienced architects, engineers and contractors, the updated local amendments were approved by Council in time for a January 2017 implementation.  Meanwhile, the Seismic Risk Management Advisory Group (SRMAG) has worked tirelessly on a community-centered seismic risk management study that summarizes local efforts, State regulations and the industry’s best practices.  This study also contains a preliminary inventory of potentially seismic-vulnerable buildings used in the seismic loss estimate modeling and future policy recommendations.  The results of this study along with some policy recommendations will be shared with the City Council in a study session in the first quarter of 2017. 

The Fire Prevention unit is a subset of the Fire Department and is a respected group within the Development Services umbrella of departments.  This past year the members of this special team have been hard at work updating the fire code ordinances.  Together, they have restructured their fee schedule, an effort undertaken on top of the plan check and inspection services they regularly provide in a timely and professional manner to all of our applicants.

The Planning department (PCE) division at the Development Center has experienced the benefits of a mature and talented pool of staff.  While many planners move up or out of the City to advance their careers we are faced with the need to recruit and redeploy new members of our team.  This has been challenging in the face of the rising workload.  In spite of the added emphasis in our Planning unit to recruit and train new staff, it has not stopped the department’s mission to improve the timeliness of their division’s plan checks or the availability of PCE personnel at the front counter.  In addition, in an effort to reinforce the one-stop-shop concept for development review, planning entitlement applications are now received at the Development Center’s front counter.  The same helpful planners are available to answer land use questions when applicants submit planning entitlement applications.  Also in collaboration with PCE, our planning unit has worked with Buildingeye (Software developers) online platform to consolidate all public inquiries for building permits and planning entitlements on one convenient website location.

The partnership between Development Services and Utilities is as strong as ever this year.  The City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) has continued to invest in technology and staffing that directly supports the mission of Development Services. These enhancements have resulted in reduced times for project reviews, provided new online customer communication tools, enabled greater use of software-based workflow tracking and mobile inspection systems, as well as allowing streamlined staff training particularly in the CPAU Engineering and Operations Divisions.

Process improvement has continued to drive Development Services as a primary objective of the department.  In response, CPAU engineers and inspectors meet regularly with the Development Services inspection staff to review and streamline construction guidelines, policies, and procedures.  Interdepartmental coordination improvements have also been targeted, with the doubling of the number of staff liaisons assigned to Development Services by CPAU.  This increased interdepartmental support has been especially helpful during our current drought, as CPAU has been important in our execution of the Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance.

Our Public Works department consists of a team of highly qualified engineers and technicians that are stationed at the Development Center.   All are equipped to answer all types of development-related questions that potentially impact the public right of way. This past year, in a similar trend experienced in the planning unit, Public Works Engineering has also experienced a high number of staff promotions and moves in their team.  Even with these challenges, they have also improved their response times on building permit requests and review duties.  In addition, last year, they launched a pilot program to enforce enhanced basement dewatering efforts for the 2016 dewatering season.  As the program matures into a codified requirement, the program hopes to reduce the amount of water removed during basement excavations in areas of high groundwater.    

Happy New Year!


Peter signature

Peter Pirnejad

Project Coordination-

Worked to get all quarterly state reports rewritten in Accela to match reporting forms.

Worked with our new scanning contractor to convert our old microfiche blueprint plans to a digital format. We are currently trouble-shooting errors and other anomalies as we try to digitally file these old plans. This project is approximately 90% complete. This upgrade will result in improved access to the records by the public and City staff.

Initiated training sessions for the Project Coordinators for issues such as assessing fees, department triggers, involvement of outside agencies, etc. This helps create consistency for staff and customers at the front counter.

Flood Zone designation has been added to Accela intake screen as a flag to help staff determine if project is located in a flood zone which requires additional review.

Did you know? You can schedule inspections, research permit records, pay fees, and track the status of your project online with no special login required. Check it out at: https://aca.accela.com/paloalto/

Planning Department-

Hired/trained two new FTE Planning Technicians.

Implement / Manage Building Eye for Building Permits.

TRC contract /cost effectiveness/Green building energy code.

Developed an alert system for staff to be aware of bld. permit due dates (weekly what’s due email and use of the My Projects tab in Accela).

Implemented oversight and improvements to the C&D program (added website, customer handout, higher penalty fees for non-compliance.

Worked with staff to migrate to Accela 8.0.

Green Building-

Developed updated Green Building and Energy Ordinance reflecting building changes for the 2016 code cycle. Presented to City Council for adoption. Submitted Energy Ordinance to the California Energy Commission for public comment and filed Ordinances with the Building Standards Commission. 

Began enforcement of the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance reflecting drought regulations based on Executive Order (EO B-29-15) required by the Department of Water Resources. Submitted Annual Landscaping Water Use Report to Department of Water Resources based on Executive Order (EO B-29-15). Developed updated Landscape Ordinance reflecting emergency drought regulations based on Executive Order (EO B-29-15) required by the Department of Water Resources. Presented to City Council for approval.

Contracted an electrical engineering consultant and cost-effectiveness consultant to assist in completion of the Electrification Study.

Trained and performed quality control support with the new Green Building Inspector.                                                                

Identified and submitted applications for three green building related awards.

Tracked and submitted annual Green Building Metrics for the SEA and Earth Day Reports.

Conducted on-going trainings for Planning, Building, and Inspection Staff on delegated green building enforcement procedures based off of 2015 trainings. Conducted on-going Plan Check and Inspection quality control program.

Building Plan Check/Building Inspection-

Created and implemented expired permit notification system to applicants/owners                                                            

Researched and developed new Building, Mechanical, Plumbing, and Electrical Ordinances adopting the 2016 Title 24 California Building Standards. Submitted the Ordinances to the California Building Standards Commission for acceptance.                                                                 

Worked with Green Building consultant and advisory committee to develop a new Green Building Ordinance for the 2016 California Building Standards and a new Energy Reach Ordinance for the 2016 California Energy Code. Submitted these Ordinances to the California Building Standards Commission for acceptance.                

Worked with Green Building Consultant on Electrification study.                                                              

Started work with consultant, committees and staff to update seismic hazard building inventory and customize approach for seismically upgrading the most vulnerable buildings.

Migrated staff to Accela 8.0.

Public Works

Investigated potential efficiencies which may be gained by integrating PW’s C.3 process requirements with Accela.

Investigated potential actions to increase the efficiency and speed of the tentative and final map approval processes.

Further refined Public Works timecard task-tracking process.

Backfilled Engineering Tech III position.

Worked with staff to migrate to Accela 8.0.

Fire Prevention Bureau-

The triennial CFC & Ordinance revision process is complete and the new codes take effect 1/1/17.

Fire prevention fee study is complete and updated fees have been approved by finance committee.

Fire inspection checklists have been developed and added to Accela.

Steve Lindsey & Thom Cook have completed their fire investigation training and joined the Santa Clara County Arson Task Force.

Annual County Hazmat (CUPA) report has been completed.

Utilities Department - CPAU

Completed the review of all residential and small commercial Over the Counter (OTC) projects within 30 days of submittal to the Development Center (DC).

Continue training CPA staff on Utilities data requirements in both Electric and WGW to increase the numbers of fully completed applications, successful OTC reviews, and meet deadlines.

Utilities and Development Services will implement, annually review and update the Utilities “Deferral Form”

Review, update and improve internal procedures to interconnect photovoltaic (PV) systems with the electric distribution grid. Development Services created a new ACCELA report allowing CPAU staff to track the status of solar photovoltaic (PV) permits and the progress towards meeting the City’s original Net Energy metering cap of 9.5 MW (effective 8/22/2016 NEM cap increased to 10.8 MW). 

Completed the changes to Utilities Rules & Regulations #27. Council approval date scheduled for 12/2016.

Utilities Engineering, Operations Inspection, and Building Inspection meet monthly to discuss projects and issues to facilitate process improvements.   WGW Engineering is reviewing and writing new procedures for the installation of water meters. Developed a new guideline gas meter installation checklist and uses the information on every plan check.  Utilities Engineering worked on Standards Details to incorporate new changes to City Ordinances and 2016 California Codes.  Utilities Operations coordinated and completed most of the installation of new services within 2 weeks from start of the 1st installation and installed meters within 10 days from receipt of the meter release.

Communications worked with UPS & DS to transition information on the City's Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (WELO) requirements.