Homeowners Survival Guide : 10 Tips to Dealing with a Municipality for a Home Project

Homeowners Survival Guide : 10 Tips to Dealing with a Municipality for a Home Project

#1 WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION? – If your profession is a doctor or lawyer ( land use attorneys are exempt) this is going to be a huge problem. You may want to stop reading right now and forget your project completely. If you choose to keep reading please do so at your own risk. Ok, here goes. You are too smart for this project. Now, that was NOT a compliment. What it means is, 99.9% of you (this number was scientifically calculated by me) THINK that because you were successful at achieving a degree in medicine or a law degree that you can somehow understand and navigate this process. Listen very closely to the next part. YOU CAN’T!!!! Again….YOU CAN’T!! I am an engineer, yet I chose an orthopedic surgeon to do my ACL reconstructive surgery, there is a reason for that.

#2 SHOULD YOU HIRE AN ENGINEER? – YES, especially if you are # 1.

#3 WILL THE ENGINEERING PROCESS BE CHEAP? – NO (sorry, you can blame your lawmakers for that) But, the good news is, if you are #1 or #2 you will be fine. Actually, you will be fine anyway.

#4 MEETING WITH THE TOWNSHIP TO DISCUSS YOUR PROJECT – This may be as important or more important than # 1. Understanding that you want to control # 3 because you did # 2 but if you are # 1 you should NEVER meet with anyone at the Township on your own. The reason you should not is explained in #1. But, in layman’s terms, you will not meet with the correct people, you will not ask the correct questions, you will not understand the answers you received to the incorrect questions and most importantly, you will undoubtedly leave the meeting being overly optimistic that you have received approval and that the Municipality is in love with you and your project. Reality is, nothing was approved and the Municipality neither loves nor hates your project. This is critical to understand because when you come in to meet with your engineer bursting with enthusiasm and optimism we have to “bring you down to earth”, which is never pleasant. You then view us/me as Mr. Negative, Debbie Downer etc. when I am really just being Mr. Reality or Mr. Been Doing This for 26 Years.

#5 HANDLING OUTSIDE AGENCY APPROVALS ON YOUR OWN – I simply cannot say NO loud enough. Again….you will likely need approval for your “home” project from the County Conservation District, the County Health Department, possibly PA DOT. Yes, you can google them and call them and ask questions but you will set into motion a few fun things that really are not fun. First and foremost, the people that work at those agencies are helpful, but also busy and it is often difficult for them to explain all that needs to be done to someone that has zero experience with “the process”. Therefore, you will often get (and rightly so) the Cliff Notes version of what is required. You will then digest about 30% to 35% of the Cliff Notes information you received and pass about 20% of that information accurately which results in about 6% to 7% good information. That is not good in case you were wondering. Think of it like this. You need open heart surgery and your anesthesiologist needs to discuss the surgery with your heart surgeon. Do you want to meet with the anesthesiologist on your own and then explain what he/she said or needs to your surgeon? The answer is, you don’t.

#6 CONSULTING WITH YOUR RELATIVE THAT IS AN ELECTRICAL ENGINEER IN SOUTH DAKOTA – Yeh, this is not going to help. While your cousin Jed may have a degree from South Dakota State University in electrical engineering he, unfortunately, will not be of any use whatsoever. We will always be polite and let him participate but in the end, you are wasting your, our and Jed’s time I promise you.

#7 THE USE OF LOGIC – Hands down the most dangerous thing you can do. Avoid logic like the plague no matter how much it tempts you. And trust me, you will be doing all you can to not revert back to logic all the time. You must live and die by ordinances and regulations AND definitions of any and all words. Logic has absolutely no place in the world of approvals in Pennsylvania I am sorry to report. Example – Denny, I don’t need stormwater management, my driveway will be stone. WRONG! Stone is defined as impervious. Denny, I am not adding any impervious cover, I am building my addition over my existing driveway. WRONG AGAIN! Last one, and this is my favorite….I get the chills even typing it. Denny, the Township will love this, it gets them “ratables”. Just for the record, I can’t stand the word “ratables”. RIGHT and WRONG actually. Right, it does get the Township “ratables” but WRONG they are not going to love you for it. Every project, I say again, EVERY project causes the dreaded 3 (followed by my favorite things I hear over and over and over ). 1. Traffic ( There is so much traffic on that road I can’t even pull out of my driveway in the morning Denny!) 2. School-age children (How in the heck will the school district be able to afford ALL these new children Denny? ) I fight hard not to scream out “WITH SCHOOL TAXES YOU &@%!!”. And, my personal favorite 3. Where will all of this stormwater runoff go? Gee, I wonder.

#8 COMPLAINING ABOUT THE PROCESS TO THE TOWNSHIP – This is very common, no need to be alarmed if you have an overwhelming feeling to call the Township and let them know how frustrated you are and how incompetent you feel they are. Unfortunately, this only causes two things. One, it shows clearly your complete lack of understanding of what is required and the process of getting your project approved and two it will likely get someone upset and maybe even irritated at you. Neither of these will be beneficial to you.

#9 CONTACTING YOUR CONGRESSMAN – Not as common as #8, but this does happen. About 10% of people go nuclear during this process and pull out that handy guide you get at the polls with all of the phone numbers and email addresses of your state representatives and congressman. You will set out on a mission to “change the system”! You will be unsuccessful. I don’t like to use the phrase “ you can’t fight city hall” because that would be inaccurate. You can fight City Hall all you want, you just won’t win. You CANNOT win. Consider reading Sun Tzu….”The greatest victory is that which requires no battle”

#10 LISTEN – I once heard a saying that went “ no one is listening until you fart”. I remember laughing but I notice that people rarely are listening to what is being said to them. I joke in my office that no one listens to me when I ask a question or they tend to finish your question with an answer that is incorrect. “Oh, I am sorry….did the middle of my sentence interrupt the beginning of yours? “ The process of getting your project approved for construction can be an easy one or an extremely difficult one. Listening to what you are being told and THEN questioning will make the process much more enjoyable, relatively speaking, and you will come away with some valuable knowledge.

Laminated pocket copies of this are available at our office anytime.

Denny L. Howell, II PE



Being the recipient of an engineering review letter can bring on all kinds of emotions. Working on a large project and receiving a short, clean, minor plan changes required review letter can bring on a feeling of absolute jubilation. Kind of like hitting a hole in one, hitting the lottery or reeling in a 1,000 lb blue marlin or doing all 3 in the same day. Everything is good!

Your client likes you, your boss likes you, heck YOU like you. You start feeling like “wow” I am a pretty damn good engineer and my career is doing great. So you head out for a celebratory lunch with your fellow colleagues and savor the moment. The food tastes good, and you feel great!! AHHHH. Unfortunately, when you get back, you discover that the mailman has visited the office and delivered to you a three-ring bound extended novel review letter on that two-lot subdivision you just gave a great price on to do because it seemed “so easy.”

As you struggle to remove the letter that has been stuffed into a standard envelope like an overstuffed Thanksgiving Day turkey you feel your blood pressure rise. Your absolute jubilation just an hour ago is being eclipsed by anger, frustration and a burning desire to start smashing things to bits. You begin to second guess if you even have one shred of engineering knowledge left inside your pounding skull. Now your brain is trying to quickly determine if you should pick up the phone and call the person that signed the letter ( I wouldn’t do that just yet) or if you have enough money in your budget to address the monumental amount of comments.

Puzzled and frustrated EngineerRINGGGG RINGGG!!! Ah, a phone call, “this will take my mind off this for a second.

WRONG!!! It is your client, and they are VERY angry at how stupid you are, and they are ready to tell you what a crappy engineer you are and how they are not paying for any of these changes because “ you should have known this, that’s why I hired you.” ARGH!!!!!!! Ok, calm down now, relax. This is the typical day in the life of a civil engineer, and the review process is one I have long pondered and internally debated on whether it serves our profession well or serves to drive me personally nuts. Everyone who knows me knows that I know that the world is out to get me. Now, all the Township engineers that are reading this can relax as I do believe the peer review process “generally” serves our profession well. Certainly having a second set of eyes review engineered plans is a good idea. Even a third set of eyes can help.

Now, when there is a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth set of eyes reviewing plans and the comments of the third set of eyes conflict with the sixth set of eyes comments which are in direct conflict with the second set of eyes as well as my eyes, then you can see ( pun intended) how it can become frustrating. And, my personal pet peeve, when any of those sets of eyes do not have a license to practice engineering in the state of Pennsylvania (sorry, your engineer in training certificate doesn’t count) then it really sets me off. No offense new grads and EIT’s but get your PE license and you can review. If you were having open heart surgery would you mind if the licensed surgical cardiologist went to grab a Starbucks while the recent medical school graduate with little to no experience finished sewing up your last few arteries? Yeh, I thought not.

This is where I think our review process needs to change. The only person who should be reviewing licensed engineers work is another licensed engineer. Period, end of story. Sure, graduate engineers and engineers in training can assist in the plan review as it is an excellent way to learn, but at the end of the day, a LICENSED Professional engineer should be doing the review and preparing the letter. Receiving a review letter with comments that make no sense and being forced to go meet with the graduate engineer to debate and argue them is ridiculous. I am not saying this goes on everywhere, but it goes on enough. We should work as a profession to eliminate these situations. Now, drilling down a little deeper. If the road by ordinance is required to be 24 feet wide and I draw it 22 feet wide then a comment should be made that the road is required to be 24 feet wide. Plan gets changed, and we move on. That is a good and helpful comment and helps our profession and helps create good, sound engineered plans. Now, if stormwater management is required (ha, I say “if” but it always is) and our design is done but the engineer would prefer to see the stormwater facility drain to another side of the property to help Mr. Smith have less water in his yard because he calls the Township and complains a lot…well….now we may have a snag.

Puzzled and frustrated Engineer

Not only do we not want to alter our design to reduce one complaint and create another, we further do not want to change ANY design that goes against OUR sound engineering judgment. I say OUR simply because it is OUR design on OUR plan and most importantly OUR liability insurance. These situations come up more often than many realize. There may be 20-30 instances of this per year. We find that the best way to handle this is by giving full credit where credit is due. If we are forced into making a revision we disagree with we prefer to list on our plans the professional engineer requiring such change along with all pertinent contact information. This is simply done to protect ourselves from additional unwanted liability. I will say, that more often than not, we can work through these situations using nothing but sound engineering judgment and common sense. The last area of the review process I think we need to improve upon is the notion of “observing” everything. No, I don’t mean construction observation, that is fully understandable. I am speaking to the relatively new concept of requiring stormwater infiltration tests to be “observed”. Again, we are running into this more often and typically the individual “observing” our tests is not a soils scientist, geologist, professional engineer, graduate engineer or even an engineer at all.

This is a slap in our professional face. It suggests that for some reason there is a need to make sure the professional running the test does not lie or fabricate the results. We need to find a way to improve this review process as it is creating friction in engineering relationships as well as wasting money and driving the cost up unnecessarily. At the very least, if infiltration tests must be “observed” then the observing individual needs to share in the responsibility if the facility does not infiltrate as intended.

NEWSFLASH….NONE of the facilities infiltrate as intended!!!! We test per the guidelines, design per the guidelines, construct per the guidelines, be inspected per the guidelines and yet we find very often that these facilities do not operate as intended and then all focus goes to the design engineer. This is a broken process and it is wasting tremendous amounts of money and needs to be fixed. I mean, what is next, will surveyors need to follow around our surveyors to make sure we don’t fudge boundary calculations and topographic results? Don’t laugh, I have already been asked to have this done. In the end, the peer “review” process is a good idea, and as I previously stated, it often leads to a much better-engineered plan, but the process is not perfect, just ask my doctor!

Possible Rain Today

Possible Rain Today

I took the liberty of jotting down some bullet points in case it rains today. They may sound like they are sarcastic because they are.

It has been less than 24 hours but this is EXTREMELY important. There is a chance of rain today. Now, don’t panic, but this means a few things.

1. There is a chance it may rain.

2. There MAY be water on the roads. This is ok.

3. Streams may have more water in them AND the water may be brown.    Actually, it WILL be brown. Again, this is common all over the world.

4. Water will flow into storm inlets and into pipes and then out onto the ground.    No worries, this is intended. If you see this, DO NOT PANIC.

5. This is critical. Detention basins and sediment basins WILL have water in them.  AGAIN, DO NOT PANIC, this is an intended result. People like me, we actually WANT this to happen, it makes me happy when this occurs.

6. Water may also be “running” (flowing) through swales around your house.   Once again, DO NOT PANIC, this is ok and perfectly normal. This happens all the time while you are sleeping and when you wake up your yard is fine. Seeing it may be traumatic, just look away, turn on the TV or read a book until it is over.

PS – DO NOT read a book about storms or rain or watch the following movies – The Perfect Storm, Twister, Geostorm or White Squall.

Hang in there, we will get through this!

Engineering 101 – It’s not routine!

It seems all I do is complain these days when it comes to hiring. Well, some call it complaining, I call it…..” raising awareness ”. I think having a kid in college, unfortunately, has opened my eyes to things I didn’t dream of or have nightmares about actually. The good news is, at least in my mind, I believe all of this “raising awareness” may be helping some. Over the last several years I have found that interacting with college graduates has become increasingly challenging. Sure, I can get past (see my old Newsletter – Is College ruining our kids?) undoing most of the 4-year habits of enjoying on-campus Starbucks and rock climbing walls but we have now stumbled into scarier territory. “I have to be at work at what time?” Exactly. Somewhere in the last 10 years the idea of starting work at 8 am has been lost. For that matter, the concept of working until 5 pm has been lost. Seems harder and harder to truly have a full day of work logged. You bounce between the “7:59 am stumble in” and the “4:55 pm get the hell out of here dash”. The 7:59 am walk in, sit down, get coffee, go to the bathroom, talk about how the Sixers tanked last night now it is 8:30 am doesn’t work.

But hey, I get it. When you spend 4 or 5 or 6 years sleeping until noon, walking to class in your pajamas with greasy hair and eating a burrito on your way back to your “apartment” for an afternoon nap it can be difficult to get up at 6 am, shower, dress and get to work on time. But guess what…that is the real world. So….I think that ALL colleges should start classes at 7:30 am ( go on and hate on me) 5 days a week and your last class should start at 4 pm and be over at 5:30 pm. Afterward, go grab some dinner and start doing homework. Rinse and repeat. Most people who know me know I am big into routines. Not dance routines, but doing the same thing over and over routines. There have been books written on routines! Morning routines, work out routines, breakfast routines, you name it. And yet, college, which is supposed to be “preparing you for life” is as un-routine as you can get.

From one not so old man’s perspective, college is a freewheeling hippy jam fest. Newsflash to the academic world….the experiment is failing. Now I know you have labored to create these “real world” classes like having the engineering students design a Tetris game on the outside of the PECO building in Philadelphia or build a popsicle stick bridge and break it but come on, really? Sure, it is fun, but do we really need more fun? Give you a hint…NO! What we need are productive members of society. Sorry if those three words in that specific order offended anybody, but that is what we need.

And so..to recap. Classes start at 7:30 am, Monday through Friday. Classes end at 5:30 pm Monday through Friday. In between you do your wash, eat, study and “prepare for real life”. And before you say there aren’t enough classrooms for this, I would guess we could easily convert some Starbucks, Chik Fil A’s, and Chipoltle’s into classrooms. Heck, it would probably be a pretty routine job!

Can’t touch them!

Can’t touch them!

It seems in this day and age there are so many lines on our plans that they have almost, I say almost, become unreadable. It isn’t just property lines and easements anymore. It is now different pipe sizes, every utility known to man (and woman) (both existing and proposed), seepage beds, steep slopes of varying degrees, different size trees, streams, stream buffers, wetlands and wetland buffers etc.  The list goes on and on. With every project we, as designers, are requested to add more and more information to our plans and our plan legend continues to expand. We are literally starting to run out of ideas to differentiate between lines.

The simple “one dash” or “two dash” line type just doesn’t work anymore. So….in an effort to make our line types different as well as have them “communicate” their purpose we have come up with (and will continue to come up with) new line types over the next year. Our first new line type will be to delineate wetland boundaries, communicating to ALL that you “can’t touch this”(them).

Now, the first 3 people to take a picture of this new line type on one of our plans and email it to me (denny@dlhowell.com) will get a $100 gift certificate to Sullivan’s Steakhouse or Fogo de Chao…your choice. Sorry vegetarians.

Denny L. Howell, II PE