They were ready for S.F.’s nightmare permit process. Then a simple mistake made ‘all hell break loose’

When Alan Billingsley and John Podolsky sought to expand an 85-square-foot-room on the second story of their home in San Francisco’s Eureka Valley neighborhood, they thought they knew what they were getting into. 

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John Podolsky and Alan Billingsley stand in the area that they have been trying for five years to get approved for a small addition on the second floor of their San Francisco home. Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Both longtime San Francisco residents, Billingsley and Podolsky have friends in city government and are involved in local politics. Podolsky works in construction, focusing on tenant improvements in downtown high-rises.

Still, they did not expect that getting approval for their home project would take five years, two permit expediters, an attorney and tens of thousands of dollars — and counting.

Start of nightmare

Their problems, like those of many San Francisco homeowners in the throes of permit nightmares, stemmed from a stream of neighbor complaints that went on for months, as well as a misunderstanding of the city’s complex building code — both examples of how seemingly straightforward projects can get stuck in an endless cycle of delays.

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Based on the couple’s familiarity with the city’s system, Billingsley said that while San Francisco might be bureaucracy-heavy, he thinks it’s likely that most permit applications for small projects are reviewed and approved “in a timely manner with no drama.” 

But “the two exceptions to this are when a neighbor complains and when you make a building code mistake,” he said. “We had both.”

Billingsley and Podolsky embarked on their project in 2018. They wanted to expand a sunroom out onto an existing balcony space on their second floor, turning the balcony into about 100 more square feet of enclosed sunroom space. The work was all on one story and did not require any special exemptions from the city planning code. 

During the planning application process, they had to inform neighbors of the plans with a 311 notice, named for a planning code section. According to Billingsley and Podolsky, two neighbors showed up at the meeting and opposed part of the original plan, in which the roof of the expansion would also function as a rooftop deck. 

Rather than fight the neighbors, Billingsley and Podolsky removed that part of the project, submitting revised plans in September 2019 in which the expansion was covered with a regular roof, not a usable rooftop deck. No one filed an appeal to those plans.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” Billingsley said. “We thought, ‘OK, phew, we’re past that.’ ”

As they moved forward with construction plans and finalizing a building permit, knowing that that would take time, the couple decided that they would do some garden work they had been planning — including reducing the size of an existing wooden backyard deck off the first floor, unrelated to the expansion. 

“That’s when all hell broke loose,” Billingsley said.

Their landscape architect told them that they wouldn’t need a permit or city approval for this work. The couple also had a permit expediter — an outside consultant who helps homeowners navigate San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection — double-check that that was accurate.

Stream of complaints

Cities and counties across California have complaint-driven code enforcement. Many, like San Francisco, send inspectors to check on alleged violations. Others, like Oakland and Sacramento County, send a letter to the homeowner, giving them a chance to prove that they do not have a violation, before sending someone to the site.

Officials in Oakland, with a population about half the size of San Francisco’s, said they received 6,683 complaints in 2023, compared to San Francisco’s 14,179 — or 55 per business day on average, according to Patrick Hannan, a department spokesperson.

San Francisco DBI records show at least 11 complaints filed between October 2020 and September 2021 related to Billingsley and Podolsky’s property, all claiming, in various ways, that work was being done without a permit or outside of the scope of the permit. The complaints, though they do not name the person who filed them, describe seeing the backyard work from a neighbor’s vantage point. The couple said they confirmed that a neighbor was making them.

Complaints to DBI do not necessarily mean anything is wrong or illegal and, unlike San Francisco’s notorious “discretionary review” process, do not trigger a public hearing. But they do prompt DBI to send an inspector to the site every time a complaint is made.

For Billingsley and Podolsky, the complaints meant a rotating roster of inspectors was dispatched to the house on different days to check if there actually were any violations.

In response to the first complaint, made in October 2020, inspectors determined that, despite what Billingsley and Podolsky’s consultant said, a permit actually was needed for the garden and ground-level deck work, as it included rebuilding two stairs that were more than 36 inches above grade. They issued a correction notice, and Billingsley said the inspector said the issue was minor.

“Mea culpa, ignorance of the law,” Billingsley said. “We were wrong.”

Another problem was that the first floor deck extended into the minimum rear yard space required by the city. Billingsley and Podolsky, who bought the house in 2008, said that the deck had been expanded by the previous owners around 2000, likely without a permit. But one of the inspectors who had visited the property due to the complaints noticed that the expansion was not compliant with city codes, and it was the couple’s responsibility to fix it.

“Regardless of when the illegal construction occurred, a property owner is responsible for obtaining a permit and ensuring their building is safe and code compliant,” Hannan of DBI told the Chronicle. 

To resolve the issue, the couple needed to file a revision permit to their original project application for the addition, which showed in the drawings that the first floor deck existed prior to their addition project, but was not shown in drawings on the original permit application.

Another complaint, lodged in November 2020, said that Billingsley and Podolsky seemed to be “expanding the envelope of their structure.” While that was not the case, records indicate that DBI spoke with the homeowner and directed a stop work notice for first floor deck work until a permit was issued. 

The inspector decided that “given the controversy, we should apply for a full permit for the deck and stair modifications,” Billingsley said. They asked their architect to prepare the plans and applied for the permit the same month, records show. It was approved soon after.

After another complaint about construction in November, an inspector visited and said no work was being done on the deck, and that “surface work” on their ground patio was OK to proceed. 

At the beginning of December, another complaint was filed, this time alleging that a “common wall with neighbor’s building has been removed and a new structure is being built.” An inspector visited and found that a vegetation trellis panel — which it noted was not part of the wall — had been removed with the consent of the affected neighbor, and that there was no new structure.

In December 2020, Billingsley and Podolsky applied for the revision permit that would show that their first-floor deck existed prior to their addition project application, records show.

“This turned into a very lengthy process as DBI kept having comments and then required structural drawings and analysis,” Billingsley said. “Our architect, engineer and consultants thought this way over the top, but we proceeded.” 

Records show that permit going back and forth between the planning department, the building inspection department and the applicants until it was finally approved and issued in November 2022.

In the meantime, Billingsley said, the couple told their gardening contractor to continue to work on the garden, just not touching the deck — work that by city rules was all OK to do without a permit. Plumbers and electricians were also on site, with approved permits, he added. But the couple did ask an inspector if they could still repair the top two deck stairs, as they were dangerous, he said.

The inspector “agreed, but not in writing,” Billingsley said. “Big mistake.”

In February 2021, another complaint about work without a permit was called in. An inspector went out and determined that the permit for which Billingsley and Podolsky had filed the previous November would address the issue.

A few months passed before yet another complaint was filed, in August 2021. An inspector went out and determined that no work was being done without a permit and that work being done on the patio slab did not need a permit. The inspector closed the case.

With the work generating so many complaints, Billingsley said the couple discontinued the garden project for two years. With no work going on, they went to Europe.

Deck problem resolved

At the beginning of September 2021, the neighbors filed another complaint about work without a permit. An inspector visited and found no one home. (That complaint was still open as of March 28, 2024. When asked about it by the Chronicle, Hannan said that this complaint was “inadvertently” left open. It was closed the following day, March 29.)

A week later, another complaint was filed. This time, the inspector said that metal guardrails had been installed and that the stairs were finished on the first-floor deck, without a permit, and issued a notice of violation. Billingsley said the stairs were the work that a different inspector had told them verbally they could proceed with, even without the permit, for safety reasons. 

Throughout the month, inspectors visited, finding no one home, as the couple was traveling — even though, according to Billingsley, no construction was happening during that time.

At the end of September, records show an inspector met with the homeowner and architect and determined that all work requiring a permit had stopped and the couple were in the process of getting a permit for the deck. The case got referred to city Code Enforcement, prompting further review. The permit for the deck was put on hold to wait for a hearing with the zoning administrator.

The same month, in September 2021, a zoning administrator, who works with the Planning Department, determined that their deck was legal but noncompliant with current codes. A month later, at the end of October 2021, an enforcement planner and the inspector who had already visited the property several times determined that the noncompliant portion of the deck had not been reconstructed or replaced.

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Comments

  1. Robin Itzler - Patriot Neighbors says

    Do they vote Democrat? If yes, THEY are part of the problem. If no, welcome to “Communist” California!

  2. Unfortunately these two are probably getting what they voted for. But not realizing it. No wonder no one wants to live there. Your surrounded by Karen’s! What a waste of time and money. What’s going to happen if a big shaker hit?? The city will be mired in paper work and complaints. Nothing will get done. Just another reason to leave the stupidity of California..

  3. If you pass gas, you will get a violation in this wonderful, once beautiful State of Kalifornia. I am just saying.

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