Streamlined permits get more homes built

Home builder Jim Conner saved $112,000 when King County streamlined his permit process, giving him a marketing advantage and saving the home buyers money as well.

"Fast-track, six-month processing cut my permit lag in half, slicing my annual $225,000 interest on my subdivision to $112,000," the Seattle developer told a conference sponsored by the Seattle Master Builders (SMB) not long ago.

Mr. Conner's pilot project evolved from an SMB-King County effort, much as a city-home builder working committee led the way to permit streamlining in Kansas City, Mo. Here, authorities now identify problem zoning cases early on, streamline trouble spots, and get the whole process moving without delay.

Impetus stemmed from word that regulations were causing developers to bypass city land in favor of suburban sites.

More success stories are contained in a new American Planning Association (APA) report.

A developer confers with the staff in a preapplication conference, thus learning either that his application for a building permit will probably pass or that it suffers from a fatal flaw. He's glad he doesn't have to spend a bundle of money on architectural and engineering fees, only to learn that he won't get a permit after all.

Later, he submits two applications to a central desk. The first application -- one for a routine project -- whizzes through the staff reviews and gets a stamp of approval.

The zoning examiner takes public testimony on the second application since it involves a major change. Then he issues a final decision, subject to call-up by the city council.

These streamlining strategies, detailed in the APA report, are likely to be popular with developers, city officials, and citizens alike, since a need to streamline the process is one of the few issues they all agree on. For example, Sacramento County, Calif., decided to reduce the hurdles which applicants must jump.

Officials established special-use permits, reserving rezone hearings for major changes. Developers consult a table to determine special uses within a district. A single hearing replaces up to four hearings which had to be held earlier.

"Rezoning requests have been reduced by 75 to 90 percent and processing time cut in half," says John Vranicar, APA senior research associate.

In the same vein, Lane County, Ore., sliced processing time in half for more than 75 percent of its applications. Dual tracking routes routine subdivisions and variances through speedier staff decisionmaking.

Mountain View, Calif., has switched to a hearing officer, saving $8,000 a year. Now, the planning commission isn't bogged down with routine cases.

Small jurisdictions find it economical to share examiners with nearby cities and counties. Part-time examiners can be objective, despite critics who claim they can't be.

"It's a lonesome job," says examiner Robert Backstein since parties don't try to bend his ear at a prehearing. A lawyer, Mr. Backstein is a part-time examiner for Pierce County, Wash.

"One of the most promising approaches is to establish the position of hearing official," the APA study advises. Indeed, a trend toward examiners has emerged.

Personnel, too, are the key in Baltimore, which uses a permit expeditor to troubleshoot any delays. In Seattle, personnel find that tightening up among the various departments is of value.

"Environmental planners want to save all the trees, but the transportation department wants a full width cleared," says the study, which chronicles a common complaint by developers.

In addition to better management of personnel, better management of information is vital as well.

San Jose, Calif., computer-logs all applications, showing deadlines for specific, official actions. Printouts show processing time for various types of applications, thus eliminating bottlenecks.

"El Paso County, Colo., computerized much of its record-keeping and now processes an increasing workload with half the staff," the study reports.

Outmoded laws give rise to variance requests, clogging the applcation flow.

Meanwhile, advocates of the Breckenridge, Colo., "point system" claim that it consumes less time than traditional systems. Breckenridge replaced its zoning ordinance with a weighted point system which is tied to a set of 250 development policies, according to the study. The city isn't the only one which believes that laws, tangled like overgrown lots, must be simplified.

"I suspect that building codes and standards need pruning," Washington Gov. John Spellman says. "They shouldn't be wish lists."

One way to attack cumbersome law is at the source. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has hired a full-time lobbyist to combat excessive regulation, according to Robert Sheehan, NAHB research director.

Change won't come easily, it appears.

"Within the bureaucracy there's a tremendous resistance," laments Gene Peterson, himself a King County planning bureaucrat.

Ben Thompson, chief of the Tacoma building division of the State of Washington, puts it this way: "Agencies don't want to lose their sovereignty."

Workers may not want to lose their jobs, either. Mr. Thompson's idea, a one-stop permit process, will result in a net reduction in staff, he says.

Copies of the American Planning Association study soon will be available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C. The Urban Land Institute assi sted with the study.

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