New agency streamlines development approval
Rapid growth can strain a city in a multitude of ways, and, as one of America’s oldest and fastest growing cities, Raleigh, N.C., can attest to these challenges. But rather than use growth as an excuse, the city seeks solutions to the situations associated with growth.
One such situation existed with the city’s development plans approval process. While Raleigh’s staff was eager to reduce the hurdles in the development approval process, it needed assistance from the developers to do it right.
In an attempt to see the customers’ perspective, the city surveyed the development community in late 1993 to learn what was favored and what was objectionable in plan approval procedures. Among the survey’s findings were:
* 58 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with local permitting regulations;
* 43 percent felt the attitude of local government toward business was not positive; and
* despite the above two findings, almost half the developers said they were satisfied with the responsiveness of city staff.
With the system’s strengths and weaknesses identified, Raleigh formed a task force of business developers to put this information to work and provide suggestions on how to improve the process. The task force recommended the city establish a one-stop center for business needs, give authority to those directly involved with the permitting process, assign a person to manage the process and establish a timeline for permitting.
In response to these recommendations, Raleigh created the interdepartmental Development Plans Review Center (DPRC). Rather than add staff positions to create DPRC, the city simply reassigned and/or reclassifed existing employees.
City Manager Dempsey Benton says the painstaking review of the existing process by the staff and developers, along with close adherence to the recommendations are the reasons the new system is working well.
“We asked the customers what was wrong and how they would fix it,” Benton says. “We weren’t afraid to throw out the old plan and try something very different.”
One result of this is the reduction from 25 days to five days in the time needed to review a development plan. Benton says the 500-percent reduction was accomplished with “streamlining and simplification.”
In the year-old DPRC, one person is assigned as a primary contact throughout the review process. This new procedure allows the city to approve 65 percent of the plans without full multi-departmental reviews. Previously, plans had to be submitted to several departments — all with varying responsibilities — for review under specific code and design standards adherence and were evaluated on the basis of perceived policy preferences of the city council.
Under the previous system, plan reviewers did not identify the required site improvements during the preliminary plan stage. Reviewers also assumed most plans would be submitted with incomplete data, requiring a time-consuming review to assure adherence to standards.
The new system is based on the premise that applicants are submitting adequately detailed plans. If inadequate plans are submitted, staff reviewers provide constructive feedback to applicants on the standards that must be met but are not committed to fixing the plans themselves.
“Developers like dealing with one person rather than many people in several different departments,” says Ed Frederick, a plans reviewer. “That person is their conduit to others involved in the approval process, and [developers] don’t have to wander all over City Hall looking for the right person.”
Plan reviewers are authorized to waive previously required departmental routing reviews if code and design standards are reflected in the submissionl. Reviews now are based upon city code and approved design standards.
The staff uses fax machines to quickly notify applicants of the review comments, including written approval, reminders of any existing special condition and written details of the next step the applicant must take to proceed with development.
The new system allows city staff to personally, and with greater flexibility, serve the customer. Thus far, builders and developers are pleased with the progress made by DPRC.
“Often people complain that government is not up to par when compared to private business, “says Raleigh contractor Michael Weintraub. “In my recent dealings with Raleigh’s staff, they were every bit as responsive as any individual on any staff anywhere, public or private.”
Raleigh developer William Henderson echoes this approval. “Whenever our plans were contrary to city code or policy, the staff made suggestions about how I could achieve my desired objectives and still stay within the bounds of the limitations imposed upon them,” Henderson says. “These people have personified the epitome of public service in the performance of their duties.”
Another unexpected bonus of DPRC is $500,000 in inspection fees which might have gone uncollected under the previous system. “Before, no one looked at the project as a whole,” says city reviewer Ed Frederick. “Now that we work together as a group, we can better identify where fees need to be collected.”
DPRC is proving to be a successful step in addressing this growing city’s need to move building projects from the drawing board to the construction site as swiftly and efficiently as possible.