expedite permitting: overview » introduction » speed and consistency

Implementation and enforcement of local policies may be just as important as the policies themselves. Without adequately trained staff, the permitting and approvals processes can become unpredictable; resulting in time, effort and materials that are wasted in efforts to comply with what is, in practice, a shifting standard for compliance. Similarly, when there is insufficient staffing to process approvals in a timely manner, the approvals process can become delayed, increasing development costs.  With municipal budgets growing tighter, public employees are being asked to do more with less, making it imperative that they be property trained and work efficiently.  Also needed are systems and procedures that assure both consistency and efficiency.

Saltillo Lofts
Photo courtesy of ULI Development Case Studies.
Click on the links below to learn about steps to address the administration of local review processes:

Improve staff training
Avoid inconsistent interpretation of local codes and restore predictability to the development process.

Use third party or self-certification systems
In some communities, allowing some privatization of the inspections and review processes can help avoid lengthy delays and backlogs.

Set time limits for review periods
Publishing timelines for review helps applicants estimate the time needed to complete the process and increases accountability.

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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.

Click on the links below to learn about various strategies for expediting the permitting and review processes:

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.

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 to view other resources on expedited permitting.

Improve staff training

Planning or other agency staff members are responsible for interpreting zoning and building codes and determining whether a project meets regulatory requirements. An economic slowdown represents a great opportunity to improve staff training, especially if the staff has been reduced, leaving the remaining staff with additional duties and workload.  Without proper training, interpretation of local codes may be inconsistent, making it difficult for developers to anticipate the outcome of the review process. Training staff members to enforce standards in a uniform way restores predictability to the development process, making it less risky for developers to submit projects for approval and reducing the amount of "wasted effort" that goes into attempting to meet a shifting standard. Some jurisdictions also offer training for developers, builders, and others involved in the construction process so they can learn how to create plans that are likely to comply with local regulations and move quickly through the approvals process. Click here to leave this section and learn more about code enforcement related to rehab codes.

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Use third party or self-certification systems

There are numerous reasons that a community may not be able to keep up with the demand for review and permitting and may consider outsourcing the work. They may have reduced staff due to municipal budget constraints, their workload may have increased due to developers revising their plans based on new market realities, or during good economic times, they may be growing rapidly and undergoing a spike in development activity.  To avoid growing backlogs and lengthy delays, some communities privatize the inspections and review processes by allowing applicants to submit their plans to pre-approved private sector professionals. Typically, the third-party examiners must complete required education or training sessions, in addition to holding the appropriate industry certifications and a license to practice in the jurisdiction for which they will be conducting reviews. Developers and builders can choose to expedite completion of the review process by hiring these third-party examiners, rather than waiting for local planning staff. Some jurisdictions also allow registered architects, engineers, and other professionals to self-certify that building plans comply with applicable regulations.

Staff from the planning department or a related agency generally audit a portion of third-party and self-certifications to ensure quality and adherence to code provisions, but otherwise rely on the expertise and integrity of building professionals to help expedite the review process. To better ensure compliance with local regulations and building codes, communities may choose to link these allowances to strong disciplinary procedures and penalties for participants who are found to have taken advantage of the system.

Solutions in Action
Since 1995, New York City has allowed registered architects and professional engineers to certify that building applications, plans, and surveys are in compliance with local laws and building codes. In fiscal year 2006, nearly one-half of all applications were self-certified, enabling builders to avoid delays associated with waiting for processing by the Department of Buildings. The Department audits approximately 20 percent of self-certifications to monitor quality and ensure adherence to code provisions.

In response to mounting concern about the quality of applications approved through the self-certification process, in February 2007 the City passed legislation allowing the suspension or revocation of self-certification privileges for architects and engineers who "knowingly or negligently professionally certified an application and/or plans that contained false information or were not in compliance with all applicable provisions of law."

The legislation also bars professionals who have been put on probation by the State Board of Regents from self-certification during the probationary period and requires that they attend continuing education classes on building codes and related laws before privileges resume. The Department of Buildings maintains a database of violators and posts their names and penalties on its website.

Visit the Department's website for more information.

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Set time limits for review periods

Some communities publish timelines for review of particular permit types, helping developers and builders to estimate the time needed to complete the approval process. In some cases, an approval or denial must be issued within these limits or developers and builders are automatically authorized to move forward with some aspects of the development process. [1] These provisions prevent development from being stalled for too long as a result of administrative delays. Timelines also help to build into the review process accountability and a standard against which performance can be measured.

In  Sarasota County, Florida, the Planning and Development Services department offers expedited processing for rezoning, site plan reviews, and building permits for green affordable housing projects that meet the Florida Green Building Coalition�s green development standards. Residential projects with 20 percent of units set aside as affordable housing can receive site plan approvals within 5 working days and building permits in 3 working days. Click here to leave this site and learn more about this example.

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[1] Denver's Development Review Process: Can It Be Fixed? 2003. By the AIA Denver STOPP Task Force. American Institute of Architects Denver, p. 27.