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The nature of permitting, inspection, and the code compliance process in general is similar to the building industry itself… dynamic and constantly evolving. The following FAQ’s are no exception; as codes evolve, and more efficient methods to expedite and simplify the permitting and inspection process are developed, the FAQ’s will be updated to reflect those changes.

Although it appears the Building Department’s primary function is to simply enforce the codes, our motivation is to assist the design and building community, as well as the general public, through the permitting and inspection process. To that end, we strive to provide the best customer service possible.

My neighbor's construction project is making a lot of noise - what is allowed?
I’m considering a home improvement/repair project, and I’m not sure where to start…what’s my first step?
It seems like almost anything I improve, repair, or replace on my property requires a permit … why is this?
I don’t understand how getting a permit for my project will actually benefit me; it just costs me money. What happens if I just do the work, and don’t bother with a permit?
I can’t decide whether to hire a licensed contractor, or be my own contractor and manage the project myself to save money. What are the pros and cons of each?
OK, I think I’m ready to apply for a permit…what information does the City need to begin the process?
How long will it take before I can get my permit?
Is there any way to expedite my approval, especially if it is a small project?
Can I get started on the project before I actually obtain my permit?
What are these additional charges that don’t seem relevant to the scope of my project? What is a Road Impact Fee? Drainage Fee?
Does my project need to be completed within a certain time?
How does the inspection process work?
I have specific questions regarding the building code as it applies to my project. How can I find out what I need to know?
I’m thinking about renting, purchasing, or renovating a commercial property…what do I need to be aware of in regards to City requirements?
How far in advance do story poles have to be put up? How long do they stay up?
I’m a property owner and I'd like to get a copy of the original set of building plans for my house. Do I still need approval of the design professional?
I’m a new business owner and will be replacing the old sign with my new name. Do I still need a sign permit?
Do I need a building permit?
I am concerned about hoarding – what do I do?
What do I do if I own or know of a vacant, unsecured substandard structure?
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Q: My neighbor's construction project is making a lot of noise - what is allowed?
A:
Construction Professionals (i.e. Licensed Contractors):
Mon-Fri - From 7:00 am to 8:00 am Light noise associated with preparing the job site is permitted.
Mon-Fri - From 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Heavy equipment/power tool noise associated with construction is permitted.
Mon-Fri - From 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm Light noise associated with disassembling the job site is permitted.
Saturdays, Sundays and City Holidays No construction is permitted. Non-construction related activities such as painting and yard work is permitted.
.                                                              .
Owner/occupant builders who do their own construction:
Saturdays - From 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Light and heavy equipment/power tool noise associated with construction is permitted.
Sundays and City Holidays No construction is permitted. Non-construction related activities such as painting and yard work is permitted.
Q: I’m considering a home improvement/repair project, and I’m not sure where to start…what’s my first step?
A:

If you have internet access, it’s not a bad idea to make your first stop www.cityofmillvalley.org. Follow the links on the home page from City Government” to the “Planning and Building” home page. There you will find links containing a wealth of information regarding all aspects of development and the permitting/inspection process. If internet access is not an option, come down and see us at the Planning and Building Department at Mill Valley City Hall, 26 Corte Madera Ave. (next to Mill Valley Market), or you can phone us at (415) 388-4033. A planner is available during regular business hours, and an inspector is always available from 8-9:00 am or 4-5:00 pm every business day (we are closed every Wednesday morning and every other Friday). An inspector may be available during other regular business hours for consultation, but it is a good idea to call first and check.

Oftentimes, a quick conversation with a planner may validate whether or not a project is viable, and an inspector can provide information on the permitting process, code requirements, and other building-related subjects. They may also be able to determine if consultation with other departments and/or agencies prior to the design process is appropriate, depending on the scope of your project.

 

Q: It seems like almost anything I improve, repair, or replace on my property requires a permit … why is this?
A:

This is true… and most of what is exempt is work that is of a cosmetic nature only. However, this must be considered in light of how and why building codes have evolved over time. (Actually, a very long time; the earliest building codes can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi, circa 1760 B.C.) The enactment of, and revisions to building codes are generally a direct result of failures from existing building techniques, and the disasters that often were a result of those failures.
Although the complexity of the codes have increased since the days of Hammurabi, what was true then remains true today; the intent of the building codes is to protect lives in the buildings and facilities we occupy and use.


 

Q: I don’t understand how getting a permit for my project will actually benefit me; it just costs me money. What happens if I just do the work, and don’t bother with a permit?
A:

Although obtaining a building permit is not a guarantee that your project will be problem-free, it does provide many benefits over non-permitted projects. Perhaps the most important benefit is that it provides an independent evaluation of the code-related aspects of your project. This process often actually begins when the project is still in a conceptual phase. Many times the information the Planning and Building Department can provide at this juncture greatly benefits an applicant in regards to the manner in which the project is ultimately structured and submitted. From initial inquiry through final approval, this “independent evaluation” is ongoing, to ensure that your project is compliant with all applicable building and municipal codes.

In addition to the above some of the more obvious advantages to obtaining a building permit are:

  • It “raises the bar” for all the individuals involved in the project.

    This includes designers, consultants, contractors, suppliers, as well as the individuals actually performing the work. Although limited to ensuring code compliance rather than overall quality control, the Planning and Building Department acts as a project “watchdog.”

  • Having a structured, time sensitive approval process can help keep the project moving (and hopefully completed!) in a timely manner.

    The general requirement that any code-required element of the project be inspected before it is allowed to be covered often leads to the discovery of problems that could be infinitely more egregious and expensive to mitigate if discovered later in the building process.

  • It provides an accurate record of work that has been done to the property over the years.

    This is particularly important in terms of transfer of ownership, and to a lesser degree, refinancing the property. The City of Mill Valley maintains a “Building History File” on each property within the city limits. In addition to applicable supporting documentation, the file contains all building permit activity since the City began documentation on the property. As per Municipal Code, when a property changes ownership the seller is obligated to schedule an inspection with the City. One of the intended purposes of these inspections, or ”RBR” (Residential Building Report) is to determine if work without permits has occurred. The results of this inspection go into the Building History File. As the contents of this file are public information, a common scenario is: a potential homebuyer, doing their due diligence, notices in the report that work has been done without benefit of permits. This can raise a red flag that often impacts the entire transaction, raising questions about the condition of the property and possibly the seller’s willingness to disclose information. Regardless of how the situation arises, it is a laborious, time consuming, and usually expensive process to submit for and receive final approval on a retroactive permit. Generally finishes need to be removed, often to both ascertain how the project was constructed for plan review purposes, as well as to determine the construction was compliant with the code in effect at the time the work was completed. In addition, the permit fees are at a minimum doubled, and may be assessed even higher.

    The City of Mill Valley is committed to promoting a safe built environment. When we issue a permit, the applicant is required to display a copy of the permit in a location that is reasonably visible from the public way. If it comes to our attention that work that was subject to permits is in progress with no evidence of a permit, enforcement action is a possibility. In the big picture, the cost of permitting is often negligible, compared to the potential value and benefits received.


Q: I can’t decide whether to hire a licensed contractor, or be my own contractor and manage the project myself to save money. What are the pros and cons of each?
A:

Generally speaking, the benefits of hiring a licensed contractor far outweigh the perceived benefit of acting as your own contractor and managing the project yourself. Acting as your own contractor (especially if you are not experienced in construction techniques and procedures) has cost many an unwitting applicant more in the long run than what the cost would have been had they hired a competent contractor.

On the Building Permit Application there are two spaces to check if you are obtaining the permit as an owner-builder. One is applicable if you are acting as an employer; the other, if you are exclusively contracting with licensed contractors. The link to the forms required by California law are Property Owner-Builder Package and Owner-Builder Permit Application. The California State License Board (www.cslb.ca.gov) is an excellent source of information regarding the legal aspects of being an owner-builder, as well as the pitfalls of hiring unlicensed contractors. We strongly recommend that a potential owner-builder take the time to peruse the requirements and information included in these links.


 

Q: OK, I think I’m ready to apply for a permit…what information does the City need to begin the process?
A:

If the steps outlined in previous FAQ’s have been completed, and the information contained in your plans is compatible with the Building Permits -- Plan Submittal Requirements handout, as well as the Residential Design Guidelines and /or the Residential Design Review Handbook, you should be ready to submit. 89

Certain circumstances exist when the submittal may be incomplete, but the incomplete items may become what is referred to as, a deferred submittal. A deferred submittal is an element, or elements, that need to be part of the submittal at some juncture, but not necessarily critical information as far as getting the project started. In other words, Building staff may be able to issue the permit, but the missing information will need to be provided at some pre-determined point; usually contingent on how the information could impact the approval process on the project.

For example: plans for a major renovation are submitted, but the calculations and structural design for the truss roof may not be complete. The calculations and structural design will not affect the aesthetic design of the roof, so the calculations and structural design become a deferred submittal. However, the submittal is only deferred until the roof sheathing is to be installed. If the calculations and structural design have not been submitted to and approved by Building Department staff prior to this juncture, work on the roof cannot progress, and there is a chance the project could be stopped altogether.

There may be many variations on deferred submittals, but the caveat is that the missing information cannot change the nature of the project as originally submitted. If it does, it becomes a revision, and is subject to separate criteria.

If you are unsure if your project contains all the necessary information for submittal, a conversation with the appropriate Building Department staff member should provide the clarity necessary to get your submittal complete.


 

Q: How long will it take before I can get my permit?
A:
A number of variables play into this. Often, it depends on what the scope of your project is, and the number of departments and agencies involved in the approval process. Structural complexity, unusual design, and unorthodox construction methodology are among the many other issues that can impact the approval process. Due to the aforementioned variables, it is extremely difficult to provide an accurate timetable of the approval process. To avoid potential delays, contact us while the project is still in a conceptual phase. An open line of communication is often the most valuable tool in the approval process. Often we can provide information that may save a great deal of trial and error (and consequently, time) in the process. Working with designers who are familiar with the approval process in Mill Valley is often advantageous.

Nearly everyone wants to know “how long until my permit is ready to issue?” We understand how important your project is to you; it is not unreasonable expect some kind of timeframe. On medium to large projects the standard processing time is four to six weeks, with the understanding that it will be approved as quickly as reasonably possible. However, a great deal of the responsibility for an expeditious approval is dependent on the initial level of relevant detail provided by the applicant. When plan check comments are generated, a timely and clear, complete response is the most efficient practice to keep the process moving. It may also be advantageous, if getting the project started is a priority, to wait until the permit is issued before submitting revisions. Revisions, except of a minor nature, must be processed in the same manner as a new submittal, and considered on the basis of how they impact the entire project.

It is also important to note that Building is only one of the departments and/or agencies that may be involved in the approval process. One of the reasons why we state a long time frame is that approval by other departments or agencies may take much longer than the actual Building approval. Generally, the more approvals required, the longer it might take before your permit is ready to issue.

As with the building inspection process, there are time limits in the plan review process. If comments are not responded to within 180 days, or there is otherwise no activity on the applicant’s part of the process, the permit application will expire, and may have to be completely resubmitted. An extension may be granted for an additional 180 days, if circumstances occur that would preclude the applicant completing the process in a timely manner. The request for an extension must be in writing, prior to expiration, and signed by the applicant. It must be addressed to the Building Official and the reason for the request must be stated.
Q: Is there any way to expedite my approval, especially if it is a small project?
A:

There are a number of permits that may be relatively quick and simple to obtain. Water heaters, HVAC systems, sewer repair, electrical service change-outs are examples of permits that generally may be obtained anytime during regular business hours. Other types of small projects may be appropriate for our Over-the-Counter (OTC) permitting service. This is generally available every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 10am until 11:30am. (Although we continue reviewing plans until 12:00 noon, we do not take any applications after 11:30) We have a sign-up list available at 8:00 am on OTC mornings and our policy is first-come, first served. The service is generally geared towards residential projects that are of a minor nature; such as projects that do not alter the footprint of the structure; does not contain structural detail that requires engineering; alterations to the exterior that require Planning or Department of Public Works review beyond staff level, etc. Examples of projects that might be appropriate would be: bathroom and kitchen alterations, a small deck on relatively flat terrain, changing out a window, termite work, etc. If you feel your project might be appropriate for this service we strongly recommend you bring the plans and/or description of the project in during the building inspectors regular counter hours (8-9am and 4-5pm, excepting Wednesday mornings) to confirm that the project will be appropriate for the OTC service. This will save you the inconvenience of signing up and waiting your turn only to discover we cannot plan check and/or approve your project in this venue.

There are few projects that do not require plans. If you feel this may be the case, contact us to discuss your particular situation. As with all projects, we will try to advise you on the most expeditious manner to get your project approved and the work started.


 

Q: Can I get started on the project before I actually obtain my permit?
A:

In general, a project must be approved and the permit issued before the actual work can begin. The California Building Code does allow an exception for emergency work, if City Hall is closed when the event occurs. This is applicable only if the emergency is of such a nature that repairs must be initiated or life and/or property would be threatened. A permit for such work shall be applied for on the next business day.

We will issue a demolition permit in certain cases. Usually it is issued for specific structural exploratory work, where certain elements need to be exposed to determine the level of repair or reconstruction necessary, for inclusion into the submitted plans. Another situation is the demolition of an entire structure, which is often allowed before the permit for the replacement structure is approved and ready to issue.

If you have a particular situation where you feel demolition might be appropriate before the project is actually approved, it will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Please be advised, however, that these cases are the exception rather that the rule. The multitude of factors and departments that are often involved in an alteration often preclude anything but specific, monitored areas of demolition.


 

Q: What are these additional charges that don’t seem relevant to the scope of my project? What is a Road Impact Fee? Drainage Fee?
A:

A Road Impact Fee is assessed on any permit issued with a valuation of $10,000 or more, as per the Mill Valley Municipal Code. This fee has been in effect since 2004. The fee is equal to one percent of the valuation of the permit. The fees collected are not specific to the street in which the work is being performed, but are deposited into a fund that helps the Department of Public Works maintain all roadways in Mill Valley.

The Drainage Fee is a one-time fee assessed to every parcel within the City, as per the Mill Valley Municipal Code. This fee has been in effect since the 1960s. Any permit with a valuation of $5000+ will trigger the assessment of this fee; with parcels over one acre in size charged a double fee. Once the fee is paid, it is entered into a spreadsheet that tracks the collection activity so the property is not charged twice. This money is deposited in a fund that is used by the Department of Public Works to improve the City's drainage systems.

Please contact the Building Counter for information on a specific parcel.


 

Q: Does my project need to be completed within a certain time?
A:

Due to the potentially disruptive effects construction projects may have on a neighborhood, and sometimes the community in general, the Mill Valley Municipal Code has set specific time limits on project completion based on the project’s valuation. This information can be found in Section 14.05.032 (G) of the Mill Valley Municipal Code.

We understand circumstances may prevent a project from being completed in a timely manner. Please contact us as soon as you are aware that your project may not be completed within the allotted time frame, and we will explore what options may be available to grant an extension.


 

Q: How does the inspection process work?
A:

Section 14.05.032 (G) of the Mill Valley Municipal Code requires that your first inspection must be scheduled within 180 days of the date the permit was issued, and ”successive approvals” must occur every 180 days thereafter. “Successive approval” means the work is inspected and approved within the 180-day period. A typical scenario would be an inspection is requested and performed, a correction list is generated, and the corrections are completed, another inspection is scheduled to verify the corrections, and the next 180-day period begins from the date the corrections were “signed off”, and the work in question allowed to be covered.

Upon request, a permit may receive one-180 day extension. The request for an extension must be in writing and signed by the applicant, addressed to the Building Official, and the reason for the request must be stated.

It’s important to note at this juncture that “successive approvals” must be based on “valid” inspection. A valid inspection generally involves completing all possible elements in a phase of the project before applying finishes, or otherwise covering the work. An example of this could be a bathroom remodel. We would not inspect the plumbing, electrical, framing, and mechanical elements separately; we would request that once all these elements were completed, the applicant would call for a “close in” inspection. This means that all of the work involved is completed and ready to cover with sheetrock or other finishes.

With every permit that is issued, a copy of “BUILDING INSPECTION FAQ’S” is included with the permit hard copy. The majority of information necessary for understanding the inspection process is included in this document. The inspection process for larger projects is covered in detail in the “PRE-CONSTRUCTION MEETING” handout. This is usually distributed as part of a project that requires a pre-construction meeting, but a great deal of the information is relevant to the inspection process in general.


 

Q: I have specific questions regarding the building code as it applies to my project. How can I find out what I need to know?
A:

An excellent method of obtaining information or interpretation of code language is to e-mail the question to the inspection staff. While we do not discourage phone inquiries, often a written format may provide us a better understanding of the question, as well as providing clarity in an answer that sometimes cannot be conveyed succinctly in conversation. In addition to the added clarity and convenience of having an answer in print, response is not necessarily limited to our regular counter hours; often we can provide an answer during the time periods that we would not regularly be available.

The California Building, Plumbing, Mechanical, Electrical and Energy codes, as well as other codes applicable to building are available for reference only at the Planning/Building Department during regular business hours. The Mill Valley Public Library also has certain California Building Code reference material on hand.


 

Q: I’m thinking about renting, purchasing, or renovating a commercial property…what do I need to be aware of in regards to City requirements?
A:

When considering opening a business in Mill Valley, it is wise to contact the Planning and Building Department regarding zoning ordinances, use permits, etc. as part of planning your business model. It is highly recommended this consultation take place before entering into any sort of lease or purchase agreement. Once it is determined that the endeavor is feasible, the next stop should be Building if any sort of alteration to the interior or exterior of the structure that houses the business is being considered. At this juncture, we can advise you as to other departments or agencies that may be involved in the approval process, as well as which building codes and ordinances may be applicable.

A major consideration on the Building Department side is accessibility. Accessibility is defined in the California Building Code as: “the combination of various elements in a building, facility, site, or area, or portion thereof which allows access, circulation and the full use of the building and facilities by persons with disabilities.” Almost any type of alteration will trigger the requirement for some degree of accessibility upgrade to the building or site.

Accessibility is an extremely complicated and potentially litigious subject. The importance of retaining experienced and competent accessibility consultants and/or design professionals as an integral part of your potential alterations and how they impact your overall business model cannot be overstated. While Building staff can advise on applicable code interpretations, we cannot act in the role of a consultant. Competent professionals may be worth their weight in gold in this arena.


 

Q: How far in advance do story poles have to be put up? How long do they stay up?
A:
Story poles need to go up a minimum of 10-days prior to the public hearing before the Planning Commission (the same time the public notice is sent out to property owners within 300 feet of the proposed project). This is intended to allow ample time for the public and Planning Commissioners to view the project dimensions.
Q: I’m a property owner and I'd like to get a copy of the original set of building plans for my house. Do I still need approval of the design professional?
A:
Yes, Building plans are protected by copyright laws and the approval of the architect, designer or other design professional who prepared the plans is required, in writing, before the plans can be copied. Plans, however, can be viewed at the Building counter at City Hall.
Q: I’m a new business owner and will be replacing the old sign with my new name. Do I still need a sign permit?
A:
Yes a sign permit is required since it is considered a new sign.
Q: Do I need a building permit?
A:

Before you make improvements on your property or convert or remodel a structure, check with our Building Department to obtain information and required building permits. The City of Mill Valley requires a permit for replacing a water heater, and state regulations require seismic strapping of all water heaters when a building is sold.

 

Q: I am concerned about hoarding – what do I do?
A:

Hoarding occurs when the clutter in people's homes impair their basic living activities. Compulsive hoarding can cause fires, pest infestations and other health and safety hazards. To evaluate a hoarding situation and develop an effective plan to address those involved, contact the Code Enforcement Officer.


 

Q: What do I do if I own or know of a vacant, unsecured substandard structure?
A:

Vacant structures can become targets for vandals, criminal activities and a general nuisance for adjacent property owners. Contact the Code Enforcement Officer or Building Department for the proper procedures to secure the property and keep it secured.


 

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