Inspecting and Obtaining Copies of Building Permits and Building Plans in California

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law.

I have been to multiple City Halls lately inspecting permits and plans, and obtaining copies of permits from local public agencies.  Here is a primer on using the California Public Records Act to inspect building permits and plans, and to receive copies of permits.

As we have discussed before, the California Public Records Act is a way to inspect and obtain copies of documents.  This works for permits, as well.  Some forward-thinking cities have their permit systems online for anyone to inspect.  Others require you to take the trip to City Hall to look at the physical files, either because there is no online system, or because some cities are not as resident-friendly as others.

Every city I have ever dealt allows the public to inspect permits without any prior notice, and without the necessity of sending them to the City Attorney’s Office.  Likewise, getting copies of permits is easy, without the bureaucratic review process seen with many other Public Records Act Requests.

Health and Safety Code section19851 says that plans are open to inspection on premises of the building department as a public record.  No copy of the plans may be duplicated in whole or part except:

with the written permission, which permission shall not be unreasonably withheld as specified in subdivision (f), of the certified, licensed or registered professional or his or her successor, if any, who signed the original documents and the written permission of the original or current owner of the building, or, if the building is part of a common interest development, with the written permission of the board of directors or governing body of the association established to manage the common interest development, or (2) by order of a proper court or upon the request of any state agency.  California Health and Safety Code section 19851(a)(1).

There is also an argument that the plans are exempt from duplication pursuant to Government Code section 6254(k), the exemption part of the California Public Records Act that states: “(k) Records, the disclosure of which is exempted or prohibited pursuant to federal or state law, including, but not limited to, provisions of the Evidence Code relating to privilege.”    The idea is that since federal law, 17 United States Code section 102(a)(8) protects architectural works, and “architectural works” is defined as “the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings. The work includes the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design, but does not include individual standard features.”  17 U.S.C. section 101.  I think that argument fails (as to inspection, not copying) because I don’t think it is among the bundle of rights associated with copyright specifically 17 U.S.C. section 106.

The information you obtain at this blog is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading or commenting on this blog. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.

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