expedite permitting: overview » introduction » streamlined process

In some areas, the process for obtaining all the necessary approvals to proceed with proposed residential projects may take years. To reduce delays and reinforce predictability in the development process, communities have implemented a number of innovative strategies.

Photo courtesy of ULI Development Case Studies.
Click on the links below to learn about ways to expedite the permitting and approvals process.

Create a one-stop shop that brings together multiple agencies that have compatible regulatory functions.

Provide customer support during the approvals process.

Use technology to expedite the process.

Facilitate economies of scale by creating partnerships with neighboring jurisdictions.

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Streamline the approvals process for new development and rehab
By identifying and resolving inefficiencies in local permitting and review processes, communities can significantly shorten the amount of time needed to process applications, enabling developers to deliver homes more quickly and at a lower cost.

Other pages in this section:

Improve the speed and consistency of local review processes
Efforts to improve training and coordination among reviewers and to ease administrative workloads can help avoid unnecessary delays and keep new development on track and on budget.

Erie-Ellington HomesRevise zoning ordinances to minimize the need for individual variances
By thinking ahead about the type of development desired in each location and providing for that development to be built "as of right," communities can substantially streamline the approvals process and stimulate production of more affordable homes.

Saltillo Lofts Facilitate the approvals process for developers of affordable homes
Affordable homes are often built on a tight budget, and unexpected costs or lengthy delays can drain available resources and even affect project feasibility. Recognizing these constraints, some communities give priority consideration to applications submitted by developers of affordable homes.

Click here to view other resources on expedited permitting.

Create a one-stop shop

Before building can proceed in many areas, 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 all necessary approvals are granted. If the building process is too lengthy and costly, some developments that are needed to meet the community's demand may not be built.

Rather than requiring visits to multiple offices, some communities bring together in one department 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, California 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. Visit Sunnydale's Community Development site to learn more.

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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 sometimes-contradictory 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.
Solutions in Action
Permit applicants in King County, WA benefit from the Preferred Consultant Program, an early review process administered by the Department of Development and Environmental Services that makes experts available to help expedite the residential permitting process.

The program is geared primarily at smaller "mom and pop" developers, and provides applicants with a list of pre-approved consultants who can assist in the completion of permit applications. Consultants review applications and help ensure projects meet an array of criteria before submission to the Department.

While standard consulting fees still apply, applicants who use the program may actually save money by reducing the need for revisions and the length of time until an approval is granted. This system appears to result in a win-win-win situation: applicants benefit from higher initial approval rates, department staff receive higher-quality applications that they can process more quickly, and consultants have the opportunity to publicize their services.

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Use technology to expedite the process

Many communities have adopted new 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 perform such tasks as submitting permit applications, retrieving information on permit approval status, accessing the results of plan reviews, and scheduling inspections. Building departments can choose to 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 neighborhood.

Photo credit: Robert Schoen

Communities that implement online permitting systems typically do so in three phases:*

Phase I - Preparation for implementation of a web-based system, includes opening of one-stop permitting centers and automating of permit systems.

Phase II - Remote access to permit systems is set up, allowing builders and developers to use the Internet to apply for and receive "simple" permits (those that do not require submission of detailed attachments).

Phase III - All web-based functions are operational, including online scheduling
of inspections; applicants can submit permit applications for larger projects that require attachments and review by multiple agencies.

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 up-front 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 (most have been implemented too recently to accurately assess long-term savings). 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.

In addition, departments with computerized permit systems may be better equipped to monitor revenue generation and their overall productivity and respond with system changes to improve fiscal efficiency and workflow management. E-permitting systems also computerize the storage and archiving of permitting activity, making it easier, and requiring less space, to access and maintain this information.
Solutions in Action
The New York City Department of Buildings is responsible for code enforcement, permit issuance, and inspection of nearly one million buildings and properties throughout the City. In 2001, the Department released the Buildings Information System (BIS) web-enabled application.

Among other functions, the BIS allows developers and other users to search by application or permit number and retrieve timely information on the status of their projects. With the details of plan review objections, violations, and inspection results readily available, developers can promptly respond to any complications or inaccuracies.

Visit the Building Information System site to learn more.

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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 working families. 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 the delivery of new homes and apartments keeps up with demand.

At one time, Maricopa County, Arizona was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. To ease administrative pressures and facilitate the development process, municipalities in the County formed the Regional Plan Review Group, a partnership between local planning staff in 6 to 8 jurisdictions (membership fluctuates annually). Members of the Group adopted identical building codes and plan review checklists, so developers would be assured that a standard floor 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.

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* This section is drawn from E-Permits Streamline Construction and Renovation in Volume 2, Issue 1 of Breakthroughs, the newsletter of HUD's Regulatory Barriers Clearinghouse.