Wondering who approves building plans? Commercial permitting is a notoriously complicated process. Review systems vary by location and project, and in many areas, there are very specific but easily overlooked application requirements. Missing these items can result in your application getting stuck before it ever even enters into review, such as blank spaces on the cover page or signatures throughout the documentation.

On top of that, municipalities across the nation can choose to adopt different versions of the IBC codes. Combine that with the fact that most municipalities choose to implement local amendments, and the permitting process becomes a convoluted web of unique requirements, systems, and processes that can vary drastically from one location to the next.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that it’s not always clear who is involved in the process and many professionals may wonder exactly who approves your building plans. Many locations require external approvals from other departments within the government in order to issue your permits, but this isn’t always communicated clearly.

While it’s not possible to give a comprehensive breakdown of who approves your building plans for any given project, having a fundamental understanding of how many municipalities are structured might help clear up some of the confusion.

Who Approves Building Plans?

City and Municipal Authorities

In almost every case, you can count on the city or municipal authorities being heavily involved in the permitting process. What varies from location to location is how those departments operate and what areas they have jurisdiction over.

For example, the City of Nashville has a massive jurisdictional footprint that extends well beyond the central business district while others, like Washington DC, are much smaller.

The naming scheme for the permitting authorities might also be distinct from place to place, but most commonly you’ll run into Community Development, Building Department, or Code Enforcement. Zoning Departments are also heavily involved but you may or may not have to get approval from them depending on the scope and type of project you’re working on.

Whether you’ll be working with a city, village, borough, county, or township, however, depends on the structure of the local government. Within these different organizations, the permitting process can range from the very simple to the incredibly complex. Think of the difference between building in Los Angeles and building in a mid-sized Midwestern city. It all comes down to the local authorities, how those governments are set up, and how involved their permitting requirements are.

Specialized Permits

As mentioned above, there are many times when your project will need approval from various different departments before the main municipality authority will issue your permits.

Some of the most common secondary approvals come from fire departments, environmental agencies, and health departments. Health departments are particularly relevant for anyone in the restaurant business, but all of these agencies (and potentially more) have a say over whether or not your project gets approved.

Keep in mind, too, that each of these departments might have its own set of permit application requirements that you’ll need to comply with in order to get their approval.

Jurisdictional Variations

Moving on to jurisdictional variations, the question of who approves building plans is heavily dependent on where the authority lies. For instance, some midsize cities may defer to county departments, while built-out suburbs might have their own self-contained systems that are not connected to the main nearby city.

Within the Memphis system, for example, your project might need separate zoning approval but only if you’re working in the City of Millington, the City of Germantown, the City of Lakeland, or the Town of Arlington, as those locations maintain separate requirements on top of those from the primary Memphis authorities.

If this is starting to feel overwhelming, that’s because it is. Luckily, permit expediters like those at Scout Services are intimately familiar with the nuances of municipalities across the U.S. and can help you wade through the sea of specifics in order to ensure accurate submittals and a streamlined review process.

How Much Time Does Approval Normally Take?

Speaking of the review process, one of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to permitting is, “How long does approval take?”

Again, it varies by location and project. Even initial review times can vary dramatically from one location to another. In Nashville, for instance, the estimated time for the initial review is about 20 business days. In contrast, an initial review in Seattle can take anywhere from 2-12 weeks depending on project complexity.

Initial review times can also be impacted by how quickly an area is growing and how busy the Building Department is. In rapidly growing cities, expect those time estimates to be on the longer side.

You should also pan for corrections and additional review times. Scout Services can help you set realistic expectations where this is concerned so you can manage your project more effectively.

Some municipalities also offer express or expedited reviews depending on the scope of work. Get in touch with us and we can tell you whether that’s an option for your project.

Common Pitfalls to Avoid

When it comes to common pitfalls, missing pieces of an application and lack of follow-up are the ones that cause the most setbacks.

Small details like an architect’s stamp, blank space, signatures, and dates in the proper places can result in your applications not even entering review. Without consistent follow-up, some municipalities may not notify you if this happens.

That’s why one of the many services we offer at Scout involves regular follow-up with local authorities so we can make sure your permit application gets through the review process as quickly as possible.