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What’s Not to Like? – Pre-Approved Plans Offer Faster Permitting, Cheaper Housing, Quality Design

It is probably fair to say that most homeowners or builders who visit city hall (or the county) for a single family or small project permit, have less than fond memories of the experience. Permit processes provide important protections for the community. But the array of zoning and building code and utility permit requirements can feel overwhelming, especially for the non-professional.

Some West Coast communities have successfully initiated a pre-approved plan permit option that can reduce some of the frustration. They offer homeowners or contractors the opportunity to purchase and use house plans that have been reviewed for conformance with building codes and many other standards in advance. This simple, inexpensive-to-implement option reduces the permit process time for selected housing types and can contribute to more affordable housing. Some of these plan programs also seek to promote improved residential design that fits the neighborhood context.

Portland Cottage Cluster Prototype Portland Cottage Cluster Prototype

In the approach used in Portland, Sacramento, and Roanoke, the local jurisdictions have developed a library of pre-approved plans. The plans are prepared by architects who are chosen by the city, often through a competitive process. In contrast, in the approach that prevails in Washington communities, the applicant submits a “basic” plan. Once reviewed and approved, the jurisdiction keeps it on file. The applicant can reuse the pre-approved plan in the future for a reduced fee, with minimal review time required.

The programs vary from community to community targeting objectives of local concern. Sacramento offers "permit ready" plans for single family infill housing in older neighborhoods. The Portland program targets design solutions for small multiple-unit projects on infill sites, and Santa Cruz offers accessory dwelling unit plans for a variety of contexts. Lee County, FL even offers pre-approved plans for sheds!

Since time is money for a home builder, pre-approved plans can translate into reduced housing costs that can be passed on to the home buyer. A contractor’s holding time costs for property taxes, construction loans, and similar costs can be reduced in addition to the contractor’s time on the project. The jurisdiction can also reduce or even waive permit fees, since minimal review time is needed, even when minor changes are made to the base plan. And, of course, the pre-approved plans themselves can substantially reduce the design costs.

Portland House-plex Prototype (3-4 units) Portland House-plex
Prototype (3-4 units)

Many of these communities have the additional objective of using pre-approved plans to promote well-designed housing. For instance, Portland's prototype plans were developed based on design contest winners. The resulting multi-family housing prototypes and site layouts, such as the house-plex, corner lot multi-family, contextual rowhouses, or cottages clustered along a green, significantly reduce the appearance of density. The designs tend to look like a large single family house from the street view. Sacramento developed its plans with considerable input from the recipient neighborhoods. Roanoke’s plans are pre-approved as meeting neighborhood design district and building permit standards. Santa Cruz offers accessory dwelling unit plans for many different contexts and provides a step-by-step “how-to” manual for homeowners.

One potential concern is that using the same plans repeatedly could lead to the dreaded cookie cutter, look-alike neighborhoods. But, of course, some builders are already predisposed toward using standard plans repeatedly. Some of the approaches above can produce a generally improved quality that fits neighborhood context. Offering a variety of plans, with some variations allowed, can help. In some cases, communities limit the number of times a plan can be used in a given area, and plans in some communities expire after several years.

Some communities may be reluctant to offer this option because of anticipated opposition from design professionals who may fear lost business. Some of the tactics of the above communities, including the use of pre-approved plans on a more limited basis such as for ADU housing, may alleviate potential fears. Also, if the community uses plans prepared by a number of firms, and the firms can sell the plans multiple times, they are more likely to be supportive. Having a plan in the jurisdiction's library may provide good publicity. The Washington basic plan approach may mollify design professionals, since they still prepare plans for applicants.

The pre-approved plan is a simple idea, but it may take many such good practices added together to reduce housing costs, to make permit processes less frustrating, and to improve a community's visual quality. Here are some examples.

Examples from Other States Washington Examples

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Photo of Sue Enger

About Sue Enger

Sue served as one of MRSC's Planning Consultants for many years and wrote about a variety of local government planning issues. She is now retired.