The City of Vancouver is exploring the possibility of establishing guaranteed timelines for building permit applications.

During the June 7 Council meeting, Mayor Kennedy Stewart moved to direct the City's Permitting Task Force to explore and report back on the feasibility of guaranteeing a timeline for building and zoning permit approvals. This would also include the possibility of automatic approval or fee waiver programs for applications that aren't given a decision within the guaranteed timeline. The request received unanimous support from all Council members.

If enacted, Vancouver wouldn't be the first city in the province to guarantee an approval within a set timeframe. In October, Surrey approved a guaranteed timeline plan, both as a means to minimize the wait time between applying and receiving a building or rezoning permit, and limit frustration for builders who didn't know when to expect an approval. As of April, Surrey says that it has met or exceeded timeline expectations in four of five application categories.

To achieve this, the City's website notes, a number of changes were made to the approval process including increasing staffing resources, expanding the online digital permitting portal, and the introduction of an expanded hours pilot program that extends the opening hours of City Hall to 8pm one day per week.

Stewart brought up the possibility of guaranteed timelines for Vancouver following a presentation on improving the permitting process, stating that he had already had discussions with U.S. mayors who have had timelines imposed on their cities. Andrea Law, general manager of development, buildings, and licensing for the City of Vancouver, noted that a similar model is also being discussed in Toronto.

"We've been in conversation with them about what that looks like," Law said. "We are listening, we're open to having conversations and seeing what other municipalities, other cities, are doing, again, because it's not a unique-to-Vancouver problem, so we're open and we're engaged in conversations to learn more."

Law said there has been a surge in the number of applications that the City has received, noting that the only other time she's seen a similar increase was in the period leading up to the Vancouver olympics.

Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung voiced support for guaranteed timelines in Vancouver, but cautioned that the move needs to be "bold," and not end up watered down like her motion brought forward last year seeking to clear the permit application backlog.

"I do think that we need to be bold," Kirby-Yung said. "Council wasn't prepared to be bold speaking, frankly, in terms of setting a timeline to clear the backlog and if that sentiment is shifting in recognition of the huge impact that delays have on our economy, on our small business, on our residents, on housing delivery... then I’m happy to support an additional commitment from around the table."

Outside of timelines, the City has already taken a number of steps to address the backlog. Over the past year, license application wait times dropped a whopping 63% while the number of permits issued has increased substantially. This is largely thanks to increased staffing, utilizing new digital platforms, and streamlining processes.