SLO builders face steep fees for minor development

November 1, 2012

San Luis Obispo business and property owners who wish to make additions to their buildings and homes face a common obstacle in the city, higher than usual fees.

Though local developers face fees no matter their location, builders in the city of San Luis Obispo incur charges at significantly higher rates than those in surrounding municipalities.

When Navor Zavala, the owner of El Neibor Mexican restaurant, wanted to add patio seating to his small yet popular San Luis Obispo eatery, city planners told him he had to pay $700. Zavala said he would have paid the $700 had a planner not told him the fee merely covered the work in processing his application and that the project could get rejected without a refund.

“I needed a patio, but I don’t have a lot of money,” Zavala said. “If you want me to pay 700 bucks and it’s not approved, I don’t have the money.”

Zavala, whose restaurant is located in a small commercial complex at the corner of Taft Street and California Boulevard, also said the planning department demanded that he add 10 parking spaces and room for bicycle parking in order to install 100 square feet of patio seating.

Associate Planner Brian Leveille said he was unsure as to what constituted the $700 estimate, but he said Zavala’s planned 100 square foot patio would require some sort of permit.

While most minor development does not require a use permit from the planning department, many small projects do incur steep fees.

For instance, the city requires a permit to install a flagpole that stands 15 feet or higher. A building permit for such a pole in San Luis Obispo costs $713.

In comparison, the city of Paso Robles charges a $262 permit fee for a flagpole, and Arroyo Grande charges $245. In the city of Santa Maria, a flagpole permit costs about $150.

If a San Luis Obispo homeowner would like to construct a fence higher than six feet, the baseline permit is $599. In addition, the project could occur additional charges if deemed necessary by the planning department.

Yet, in Arroyo Grande a baseline permit for a fence above six feet costs $206. In Santa Maria, all of the permit fees for a fence 100 feet long and more than six feet high total to an amount of $130.

Adding a deck or a balcony to a San Luis Obispo home costs $980 for the first 300 square feet and $100 for each addition 100 square feet. But, homeowners can install decks at much cheaper rates elsewhere. The Grover Beach building department recently approved a permit for a 167 square foot deck. Including plan check fees and minor state fees, the permit for the deck came to a total of $450.

In Atascadero, installing a deck merely requires an express building permit. Such a permit costs $160 plus fees for document imaging.

The city of San Luis Obispo refers to permits for items like flagpoles, high fences and decks as “minor and miscellaneous permits.” Other permit fees that appear on the minor and miscellaneous list include $340 for an awning or canopy, $1,045 for a patio enclosure and $995 for a commercial trash enclosure.

For minor construction that requires little staff work to approve, the city has a minimum permit fee of $215. As with other items on the minor permit list, the minimum building permit fee in San Luis Obispo far exceeds minimum permit fees in surrounding cities. Morro Bay charges $86.86 for its minimum permit fee, Grover Beach charges $70.34, Pismo Beach charges $55.38 and Santa Maria charges a mere $40.

Despite the noticeable differences in rates, San Luis Obispo Permit Technician Lindsey Stephenson said the city keeps its fees lower than surrounding cities.

“We are lower than all the other cities in the county,” Stephenson said.

While the permit rates suggest otherwise, many prospective builders, including Zavala, disagree that the city keeps its rates low at all. Zavala said he could not pass on the cost of expensive permitting fees to his customers.

“Who will pay for a 10 dollar burrito?” Zavala said.

In addition to concern about the cost of planning and building permits, some people view high permitting fees as an infringement upon property rights. Pacific Legal Foundation Principal Attorney Paul J. Beard, who spoke at the San Luis Obispo Property and Business Owners’ June meeting, said government abuse of the permitting process threatens people’s right to develop and enjoy private property.

“Increasingly, government agencies have been requiring permits for the most mundane activities, and have imposed extortionate conditions on people’s ability to make reasonable use of their properties,” Beard said.

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Why does it take so long to “get back to basics” again? It can’t be that complicated to re-evaluate why the City of SLO’s current fees for minor projects are so out of touch with reality! If the city really desires the creation of more affordable “in-fill housing and encourage “smart growth principles”, then lower the present ridiculous fees so that the natives will do the right things and raise more revenues for our cash strapped city immediately. It can be done quickly and efficiently!!!

So, isn’t this Lindsey person husband (Craig Stephenson) a local contractor that does work in SLO? No conflict of interest there. Are his projects scrutinized like everyone else’s? So, maybe the fees aren’t that much for her husband – who sets or establishes those fees anyways? So if your spouse works for the City that you do work in, then one would assume that you would know how to perform work that is just outside of a required permit – that is piece meal it along to avoid the fees that the rest of us have to pay. Do all the work that typically doesn’t require a permit a piece at a time, then submit for a permit for that last little piece that would trigger a permit for the whole project, thus avoiding lots of fees and inspections. So much for integrity and fairness in SLO.

what exactly does he get for his 700 bucks? I mean other than the piece of paper?

Permission to do what he would have done already by now…

“Zavala . . . said the planning department demanded that he add 10 parking spaces and room for bicycle parking in order to install 100 square feet of patio seating.”

There’s something factually wrong with this statement. It struck me as fishy first time I saw it. So I checked. The parking ratio is 1 space per 60 square feet of restaurant, or 1 and a fraction spaces for 100 square feet of patio. So either Zavala or the reporter is mixed up on the facts.