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Expedited permitting and review policies encourage affordable development

Complicated and lengthy approval processes extend development time, tying up developers’ capital and resulting in a mounting price tag for project-related soft costs, such as architect and legal fees, insurance payments and property taxes incurred during the development period. The fees associated with obtaining development approvals and building permits further increase costs, driving up the price of the finished product and making affordable homes more difficult to deliver.

Expedited permitting and review policies help increase the supply of homes and apartments that are affordable to families by expediting and simplifying the permitting and review processes applicable to all homes and apartments. By reducing development costs and allowing the market to work more efficiently, these steps help to make all homes and apartments more affordable. Some states and local jurisdictions may also adopt specific procedures for homes and apartments targeted to low-income households.

Streamline the Approvals Process for New Development and Rehab

To reduce delays and reinforce predictability in the development process, communities have implemented a number of innovative strategies.

Create a one-stop shop

Before building can proceed in many communities, developers must receive approvals from multiple agencies, each of which regulates a different facet of development, including land use (i.e., zoning), water and sewer systems and compliance with building codes, among others. Each department often has its own application requirements and administrative processes, which occasionally may even be contradictory.  Developers may spend a great deal of time and money fulfilling these requirements before receiving all the necessary approvals. If the building process is too lengthy and costly, some developments that are needed to meet the community’s demand may not ultimately be built if developers decide not to proceed due to the administrative burdens created by the permitting process.

Rather than requiring visits to multiple offices, some communities bring together two or more of the agencies that have compatible regulatory functions. Co-locating permitting, licensing, plan-checking and other development-related services in one central office simplifies the development process and enables improved coordination and communication among agency staff.

Sunnyvale, Calif., pioneered the idea of a one-stop shop, opening its One-Stop Permit Center in 1985 after interviews with local business leaders, property owners and developers revealed the need for a better-coordinated and streamlined regulatory approvals process. The Center is staffed by members of the Community Development, Public Works and Public Safety Departments, who provide an array of services including plan checks, permitting and licensing. The One-Stop Permit Center is able to issue over 90 percent of all building permits at the counter because of this streamlined review.

Provide customer support during the approvals process

Negotiating the development approvals process can be a lengthy and complicated endeavor, even for seasoned professionals. In order to receive a building permit, applicants must conform to the varying schedules and differing regulatory requirements of the multiple agencies and departments involved in the process. Responding to questions and resolving issues that arise can consume a significant amount of time for agency staff, prompting some communities to designate staff whose sole responsibility is to provide support to applicants during the approvals process. Use of this service may be required of all applicants or voluntary (sometimes with an associated fee) and can be structured in a variety of ways.

In some agencies, developers are assigned to work with a project manager from start to finish. The manager steers a “caseload” of projects through the approvals process, providing guidance and updates on the progress of permit applications and cutting through bottlenecks that may emerge.

Another option is to assign staff to respond to inquiries about specific permits or steps in the development process. Rather than following a single development through the entire process, these experts address all questions or conflicts related to their particular issue area, such as building permits. A third alternative is to designate a particular staff person to serve as an ombudsman to respond to problems on an as-needed basis.

Permit applicants benefit from knowing who to contact when they have an inquiry and receiving answers from someone with the knowledge and expertise to give an informed response. Project managers and other customer service staff also help lighten the workload of agency staff. With a thorough knowledge of local codes and procedures, they can resolve questions and preempt potential problems early in the development process, as well as serve as a liaison between clients and staff when complicated situations do arise. In addition, they help free up the time agency employees spend addressing inquiries, allowing applications to be processed more efficiently.

Use technology to expedite the process

Many communities have adopted technology that allows developers to access an array of services online, helping to avoid lengthy wait times and providing an opportunity to quickly identify and address complications or errors. These web-based programs let developers use the Internet to submit permit applications, retrieve information on permit approval status, access the results of plan reviews and schedule inspections. Building departments can customize the technology to include project management, property inspection and plan review functions. Some programs also enable residents to submit comments on proposed projects and use mapping technology to find out information about properties in their neighborhoods.

Adoption of an e-permitting system can require a substantial initial investment in new software and staff training, and preparing an existing permitting system for use as a web-based application may take a considerable amount of time and effort. Once the program is ready for use, local officials also may need to promote the new technology and offer training to make sure users are comfortable enough to make the transition to a web-based system. In addition, the system requires that the municipality create and maintain up-to-date databases that identify the zoning requirements, historic status and other attributes of each property.

While the upfront investment may be substantial, proponents suggest that costs are likely to be outweighed by long-term savings made possible through the greater efficiency afforded by these systems, though smaller jurisdictions may still find e-permitting cost prohibitive. The most widely touted benefit of e-permitting is the mechanization of routine tasks, which allows building departments to reduce staff and cut their operating costs.

Facilitate economies of scale

In some areas, development officials in neighboring jurisdictions have worked together to create a code environment that allows regional builders to achieve economies of scale that facilitate the delivery of lower-priced homes and affordable apartments for low- and moderate-income households. By adopting identical building codes and/or standardizing plan review requirements, neighboring communities allow developers to design a single product that will meet the standards of multiple jurisdictions. Communities also may agree to grant automatic approval of a building plan that has already passed review in a neighboring jurisdiction, saving time and money for both applicants and plan review officials. Durable partnerships that are structured to withstand staff turnover and political shifts provide an avenue for helping ensure that the delivery of new homes and apartments keeps up with demand.

At one time, Maricopa County, Ariz., was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. To ease administrative pressures and facilitate the development process, county municipalities formed the Regional Plan Review Group, a partnership between local planning staff in six to eight jurisdictions (membership fluctuates annually). Members of the group adopted identical building codes and plan review checklists so developers would be assured that a standard plan that passed plan review in one jurisdiction would be acceptable to all participating communities. In addition, a plan that passes review in one community automatically receives approval in all communities in the group. This allows developers to “shop around” for the community with the shortest turnaround time and helps to balance the workload of local planning staff by spreading application submissions more evenly among agencies. Decision-making related to matters of code interpretation may take longer, as group members consult with one another before issuing an assessment, but this process also ensures that interpretation remains consistent across jurisdictions, helping to reduce uncertainty in the development process.


Revise Zoning Ordinances to Minimize the Need for Individual Variances

Zoning codes are intended to specify the types of structures and uses that are allowable in a designated area. Well-designed zoning codes reflect current community preferences and give developers a clear signal of what uses will be acceptable on a specific parcel, facilitating development that is in line with community goals. In some communities, however, rather than facilitating construction, land use regulations are structured so that housing developers must request a variance for virtually every new project, setting in motion a long process of review.

One strategy for reducing these delays, and thus reducing the costs of construction, is to specify in advance that builders can build certain types of developments “as of right” in specified areas –  without needing a variance. This may be most easily accomplished by consolidating adjoining zoning districts to promote a greater diversity of allowable uses, introducing overlay districts to supplement the existing code or changing the zoning district altogether.

Some localities have expanded the supply of new homes and apartments – and facilitated new development – by rezoning appropriate areas to allow residential uses and increase the number of homes or apartments that can be developed per acre.

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