At the Counter

Newport Beach Building Services Counter
Newport Beach Building Services Counter


Be sure you are polite and have all the necessary documents beforehand. Don’t show up and ask the permit tech “what do I do?” Chances are they are backed up and love dealing with prepared clients.

1. If you are an owner-builder, be sure to have the proof of ownership which will entitle you to the permit. If you are hiring a contractor, that contractor must be declared, have a business valid business license and workers compensation. These items usually can be checked at the permit counter.

2. If you are a contractor, be sure you are working within your classification, have your business tax records updated and your workers compensation on file.

3. Scope of work must be clearly defined. For instance, if you are just replacing a furnace (sounds easy enough). Have your energy compliance form filled out and ready to submit along with your application.  The same goes for water heater and window replacements. What can go wrong? We’ll cover that under inspections.

4. For additions, new construction, changes of occupancy etc. … you have already passed the Planning, Fire, Health Dept (if required) Building Plan Check phase and are just in to pick up your approved set of Plans and pay the fees.


Please read Clarifications for additional information.


Permit Counters provide a centralized distribution hub for processing permit applications and issuing permits.  They may have a single focus for Building Department permits only, or a consolidated “one-stop-shop” focus including other departments’ permits.   They may be operated by clerical, technical, or professional staff.  They may be drop-in only or offer appointments.  They may or may not offer over-the-counter plan check or processing assistance (e.g., coordination meetings).  They may or may not offer remote submittal and issuance options (e.g., facsimile, mail, internet).  Most, however, will offer accounting, submittal, and archived records services.  Check your Building Department’s website for their Counter services.


Permit Counters typically are not staffed with Subject Matter Experts (SME) who can answer every technical question or discuss every code or installation option.   They will, however, refer you and your design professional to other SME staff and will also give you summary information and general guidelines.  Permit Counters typically have processing SME’s who understand how to assist you with navigating through the bureaucracy’s maze.  However, productive conversations with Counter staff (“talking shop”) require preparation. 


The amount you prepare before visiting your Building Department directly impacts the speed and accuracy of processing  your permits.  Employees are typically overworked, under-staffed and “multi-tasked” beyond all reasonable expectations.  The more familiar you are with basic regulatory processes and more common regulations, the better a regulatory employee will be able to advise you.  Whether your project is concise or complex, conceptual or concrete, exempt or exemplary, the number of regulations that will apply to your project is indirectly proportional to your ability to define and re-define your project as it progresses through the permitting process (“more is less”).


Planning, Building, Public Works, Fire, and Health Departments define projects differently.  While there are some commonly shared definitions, such as discretionary permit vs. ministerial permit, commercial occupancy vs. residential occupancy, and new construction vs. renovation and repair, each code uses common terms and applies common-sense rules and exemptions differently.  The technical jargon of various codes is confusing and conflicting.  Most frustratingly, satisfying a requirement of one code will many times trigger an expensive requirement in another code.  Consequently, it is an indispensable part of managing your project that you maintain a continual awareness throughout the permitting process and a prudent pre-disposition to changing components of your project as the necessity may arise.


By state law (and aversion to litigation), regulatory staff cannot design your project for you.  They can, however, be an invaluable resource for identifying alternatives that will make components of your project compliant with codes.  The wrinkle is both identifying the “touch-points” where design and compliance are different and collaborating with regulators to identify best-fit alternatives, especially when regulations of various codes contradict each other.  There is no substitute for your understanding the truism that although codes (and regulatory staff) may seem inflexible, the alternative is more chaotic (and potentially not legal).  Political reviewers and media enthusiasts who may intervene on your behalf typically discount this reality, and by doing so deduct value from the process and the safety, healthiness, accessibility, efficiency, and sustainability of your project.  Here are some time-saving steps to take Before Going To The Building Department.


1.   Review Building in California’s technical information.  Our mission is to reduce the ambiguity between “code-speak” and constructability.  We provide common-sense explanations of codes, practical applications of codes to construction, and consensus for code interpretations among regulators statewide.

2.  Check your jurisdiction’s websites (Planning, Building, Fire, Public Works) for permit application requirements, including:

  • fees, payments, and bonding requirements
  • proof of ownership (or owner’s agent) requirements
  • less-busy times to arrive and permit counter locations
  • photographs of your project (check Goolge Earth®), including:
    • trees
    • building exterior
    • detached structures
    • sidewalk deterioration
    • utility locations (meters, poles, clean-outs)

Take measurements of your project, including:

  • building perimeter
  • building setbacks (trees, fences, back-of-sidewalk, detached structures)
    • vertical distance of upstream manhole-cover above your ground floor, which will determine your need for a sewer back water valve

Check Building in California and prepare utility calculations (water, gas, electricity as applicable), even if they are not required.  Full preparation will save you time and money.

3. Exemption from one permit does not guarantee exemption for all permits or from code requirements.  This is especially evident between ministerial permits (e.g., building, fire) and discretionary permits (e.g., Zoning, survey/ map, grading).  For example:

  • If you are building an exempt 100 square feet shed in your rear yard or replacing exempt windows, chances are you will need Zoning clearances.
  • Exempt windows must meet the California Energy Commission regulations for Solar Heat Gain Factor (SHGF), U value, and visible light index (VLI) for your climate zone.

Since you will be at City Hall, take time to double-check with all other departments.

4. Keep your project simple.  Its level of complexity will determine your permit requirements and associated costs.  For example, all subdivisions require a survey map, but not all subdivisions also require infrastructure permits, bonds, soil report, construction management plan, Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan and more.

5. Many jurisdictions have special requirements for certain areas or uses, such Wildfire-resistant construction, Flood-resistant construction, restaurant fats/ oils/ grease reduction, sewer leak-testing, and Green Building Code amendments.  Check BUILDING in CALIFORNIA and websites for your jurisdiction, utility providers, and Environment Health Department for special requirements.