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PERMITS, Part 1: The Players

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

In the realm of construction, what's a 'permit'? Basically, someone -- usually City Hall -- who has the authority to dictate what can and cannot be built, issues various permits that legally permit one to develop a piece of land, to build a structure, or to occupy a building.

Anyone who's watched a few episodes of a home renovation TV show such as 'This Old House' or 'Love It or List It' has heard of permits. Sometimes they're a known ingredient, but other times someone suddenly discovers that they need a permit for some addition or renovation work. If you've never been through the process before -- or even if you've dabbled a little -- it can be a daunting, frustrating, expensive, confusing or just plain annoying exercise. In this article, I'll break down the process in British Columbia, outline the steps, and highlight the main players involved. The rest of Canada works in a very similar manner.

Here's the process in a nutshell: one department in City Hall called 'Planning' issues Development Permits allowing land owners to develop or re-develop pieces of land, and another department called 'Building' issues Building Permits and Occupancy Permits allowing the construction, renovation, and occupying of buildings.

Authority Having Jurisdiction

“In Canada, all construction, renovation, and demolition is governed by provincial legislation and by municipal or regional bylaws.”

Wherever you are in Canada whether you live in downtown Victoria, in the outskirts of Golden, or somewhere in the woods on Salt Spring Island, there is a body referred to in building codes as the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). The AHJ, quite simply, is the entity who makes the rules and has the final say in all matters of a construction project -- responsible for setting criteria for what buildings may be built and for issuing permits to that end. In a town or city, the AHJ is the municipal government or a specific department within it. In a rural area, a wild area, or something in between, the AHJ is sometimes a regional district governing body or may even be the federal government. In Canada, all construction, renovation, and demolition is governed by provincial legislation and by municipal or regional bylaws. Correspondingly, the AHJ issues various permits to applicants who demonstrate that their proposals satisfy these pieces of legislation. These permits cover such things as development, demolition, tree removal, excavation, construction, automatic sprinkler systems, plumbing, electrical work, signage, and more. This governmental authority issues a Development Permit if the project complies with its rules for the size, shape, use, and style of the building. This same authority then reviews a proposal for compliance with technical requirements and building codes and will issue a Building Permit if the proposal is deemed compliant. When construction is complete and passes the required inspections, the authority will issue an Occupancy Permit at which point the users may move in and use the building.

“Most municipalities have two departments related to construction: Planning and Building.”

The AHJ usually has a Building Bylaw that spells out the applicability, the rules, and the process for all construction projects small and large within that jurisdiction. From this bylaw, there are two main aspects of construction: aesthetic and technical. Most municipalities have two general departments related to construction: PLANNING and BUILDING. In smaller or less urban municipalities or regions, the two departments are combined into a single department such as Township of Langley's 'Building, Development, and Engineering', and larger municipalities may split them further into specialized sub-departments. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the typical setup of two distinct departments. Throughout and at the completion of a construction project, a building inspector acts as the Building department's eyes and ears on-site to review the construction work. In many cases, final approval is also required from a designated person in the local fire department who reviews the project at the end and may require some additional work not already identified by the building inspector.

Johann and Eva

I've introduced a couple fictional characters named Johann and Eva in my post EVA AND JOHANN: MEET OUR HEROES to illustrate the permitting process with some relatable examples.

Let's start with Johann. He wanted to build a deck behind his house for years, and finally he had some time off and the motivation to do it. He didn't look into City regulations; the deck and a small, attached tool shed would be in his own back yard, so he felt it was really just his own business on his own property. One Friday ahead of some nice weather, Johann picked up some cold beverages, lumber, and bags of cement mix. Over the next few weekends, our fearless handyman single-handedly erected his new outdoor party zone and shed. It's a relatively modest structure smacking of great craftsmanship, and Johann's feeling pretty good about it when a fellow his own age, holding a clipboard, walks into the back yard. The man introduces himself as one of the City of Vancouver building inspectors, and -- after a few pleasantries and compliments on the woodwork -- asks if Johann happens to have the permit on hand. Puzzled, Johann admits he has none. The inspector explains that a neighbour has complained about the small pile of scrap and spare lumber sitting on the tarp on the front lawn. The inspector happened to be in the neighbourhood and popped by to check in. Johann promises to clean up the lawn, but the inspector isn't concerned about the scrap lumber. He points out that Johann first needs permission from the Planning Department if he's going to build something on his property. The inspector points Johann in the direction of the Planning Department and a short while later is on his way.

Eva's plans are more involved; she plans to demolish her old, run-down detached garage and incorporate a new garage into a new addition to her house. Her home town of Coquitlam has a zoning bylaw and a building bylaw that are very clear that any work for new or on existing buildings requires permits. A quick phone call to the Building Division front desk confirmed that she would also need to apply to the Planning and Development Department. Another call to the Planning and Development staff set an appointment to discuss her proposed project and corresponding requirements.

In my next article PERMITS, Part 2: Planning and Development, I dive into the actual process with the Planning Department and the Development Permit.


The information above is correct to the best of my understanding, hopefully eliminates some mystery, reduces confusion, and piques your interest. However, the information is provided as mainly entertainment and should not be relied upon as legal reference. Please consult with the authorities, registered professionals, and legislation in your area, as I will not be liable for any differences you may encounter.

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