Permits Aren’t Personal: It’s All About Process


Written by Brooke Schafran, Executive Vice President of Capalino and leader of the Agency Resolution + Permitting team. To learn how we can help you secure permits, licenses and approvals from City, State and governmental agencies, contact Brooke Schafran at

Every train delay or unexpected downpour can feel like the universe is conspiring against you, so why would it feel any different when something happens and it’s your project, your budget, maybe even your job on the line? But when you take a step back, you recognize that neither the train nor the rain have anything to do with you personally– they affect you, of course, but they are not about you. The permitting process is no different.

The permitting process for almost any New York agency is, at its most basic level, a technical exercise. The decision-making process begins with this question: Is this compliant? Whether you are dealing with DCA, DEC, DOF, DOB, DOT, DEP, FDNY, Health, LPC (at staff level), Parks, MTA, SAPO, etc… the personnel who make decisions whether to accept or deny your application are guided by that one principle.   When you find yourself saying things like, “They are holding me up!” or, “This is taking too long, they should have said yes by now!” try to back away from how personal it feels (and the very real financial toll of not having what you need in hand) and ask yourself and your team the following questions:

  1. What are we seeking to have approved?
  2. What are the rules to obtain that approval?
  3. Did we follow those rules?

The answer to question 3 could be no for a variety of reasons.

We are all human, so there are times when people make mistakes that just need to be fixed. There are also times when rules or interpretations change, or agency personnel  asks you to do something that is valid, but rarely asked. You may get a comment or an objection that make you or your team say, “Oh! They don’t usually look at that” or, “I’ve never had a problem with this before”.  It may feel like you are being singled out, but again, consider the technical criteria- if the comment or objection is valid, it needs to be addressed.

It may indeed be the case that there are 100 instances you can point to where it looks like someone was able to do the very thing your progress has been halted for, but “You don’t always follow your own rules so why should I?” is not a valid defense of your application. Nor is, “Here are all the other people that got away with it so you should let me do it too.”  Keep the focus on your own application and know that as the applicant, you are responsible for dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s. While it may feel like you are unfairly being held to a higher standard than other applicants, in general, the longer you resist adherence to the rules the longer it will take to get your approval.

The answer to question 3 may also be no because your circumstances do not allow for strict adherence to the rules.

In these cases, we work with our clients to clarify – with concrete and technical rationales – how the application in question may be approved within the existing framework of rules. The process for doing this is different for every agency.

The answer to question 3 may also be no because the answer to question 2 is I dont know.

Sometimes, you can’t tell what the rules are and need help from the agency you’re seeking permissions from to understand the requirements for an approval.  Other times there are no rules to achieve what you are seeking and you get a “No” from an Agency because there is no mechanism for them to say “Yes”. Again, this is a result of the technical parameters for a given process and has nothing to do with whether or not people are sympathetic to your situation.  In general, people want to be helpful, but at various levels their ability to be flexible is essentially proscribed.  In these situations, we work with clients to help identify the correct path and/or create processes that may allow for the issuance of an approval.

If the answer to question 3 is Yes, I followed the rules, it may be as simple as revisiting the issue.

While permits are not personal, you are still dealing with people, so Agency personnel can make mistakes too. If that is the case, do not announce that they are wrong or that you know better. No one likes to be confronted with his or her mistakes, and, if you back someone into a corner, they may feel the need to defend their position- making your approval that much harder to achieve. Allow people to be helpful to you by seeing their side as well and, to the best of your ability, working within the given parameters.

It may turn out that it is indeed appropriate to escalate something to the next level, but the permitting process is not a game of leapfrog and you will be more successful by respecting the process and going through each of the appropriate steps before proceeding to the next one.

Even when it is personal, focus on the process. 

There are, of course, times when personalities and politics do come into play. However, at its core the process remains the same.  The best way to address what may look like a personal issue, be it a personality conflict with someone you need help from, a civil dispute with a neighbor or political pressure from an elected official on behalf of their constituents, is to boil your problem down to what is the specific technical issue. Solve that issue, and then you can move on to address any additional outstanding concerns.

Knowing what to ask, when to ask and of whom, is an art and a science.

Every agency has its own rules and requirements, so when you do have those “holdups”, remind yourself that it is not personal and allow those who are most familiar with an agency’s permitting processes and procedures– and personalities – to help you navigate each unique situation and guide you towards success.

To learn more about our Agency Resolution + Permitting services, contact Brooke Schafran at

Agency Resolution + Permitting Services

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