Each time Jeff Barfield submits plans for a new development project, he gets ready to wait.
He gives the city his pile of documents — blueprints and maps and photos and forms and everything else the city’s permit-checking specialists need to make sure the plan is satisfactory — and the city sets it aside.
It’ll be up to 30 days until he hears from the city again, but it won’t be to let him know if his permit request has been granted. It’ll just be to confirm that his application had all the relevant materials.
The Development Services department calls this its “completeness check.” It doesn’t include any substantive review of the project. It’s just making sure everything’s there. If it passes, the application goes to a project manager who distributes each form, study, description or blueprint to the relevant reviewer, who then makes sure everything stands up to existing regulations. In the meantime, the applicant waits.
“We’re licensed professionals putting these applications together,” said Barfield, planning manager for RBF Consulting. “Usually there’s no need for us to wait up to 30 days just to find out we aren’t missing anything.”
This is the first piece of the proverbial red tape Mayor Kevin Faulconer promised to cut, to get homes and offices built faster in hopes of lowering rents and providing for the city’s growing population.
Under a new program, Development Services — the department that approves building permits — will hold a two-hour workshop for design professionals on which materials are required of a permit application.
Complete the class, and Development Services will assume future projects have all relevant documents, and the actual review of a project will start immediately.
And if in that substantive review, it turns out you didn’t have a complete application, it’s the applicant who loses: The project goes to the back of the line, beginning with the completeness check, and the applicant gets removed from the list of people who can skip the completeness check.
Ultimately, the move will cut anywhere from two weeks to a month in the time it takes a project to get approved.
That’s a nice perk for developers, who often complain that everything during the review takes unnecessarily long. But in theory, making it faster to build homes and commercial buildings means lower prices for eventual residents, because business expenses don’t go away just because an applicant is waiting to get the go-ahead from a regulatory agency. And even if those savings don’t translate to lower rents, it at least means less time with underused properties in your neighborhood.
Faulconer’s administration says this is the first in a series of plans to speed up the time it takes to get things built.
Simultaneously, the city’s also now allowing licensed contractors to get permits to install roof-top solar panels on single-family homes without going through any plan review. Those contractors will also need to go through a city-provided training session first.
Bob Vacchi, director of Development Services, said the department’s managers took a fresh look at the approval process to find stages that weren’t necessary.
“We came up with a list of items, and this is the first one to implement,” he said.
David Graham, the city’s deputy COO of neighborhood services, called this is a trial program that, if successful, could mean allowing city-certified design professionals to skip other review periods as well.
“(This) idea of certifying design professionals has been around,” he said. “This is our attempt to make sure self-certification works, and in what areas.”
Andrew Malick, an architect-developer with Butler Malick Master Builders, said he’s heard talk of the city doing something like this for years and was pleasantly surprised to hear it’s finally happening.
“This is a very positive improvement: They’re doing it in steps, saying ‘let’s try this out, these are professionals, and let’s test it and see what happens,’” Malick said.
At this point, there isn’t an obvious drawback, either.
The project itself will still get as comprehensive a review before permits are issued as it did before.
But the city already has a reputation among neighborhood groups and others for being too permissive with developers.
“There’s a thought at some planning groups that Development Services stands for developer services, that that’s who they really work for,” Barfield said. “I think that’s unfair, for one, but the reality is there’s an incremental creep of new regulations and requirements, but they never remove old ones that don’t make sense anymore.”
Of course, a backlash could brew among neighborhood groups if the city expands the concept in the future – such as by allowing certified planners to secure a permit without first going through review (as is the case with the new solar program), by doing something like leaving all required code reviews to final building review.
“There are checks and balances for everything, and I’ve only ever lived in a world with third-party review, so it’s hard to say for sure how it would work out,” Malick said.
Graham said the city would control expansion by weighing potential risk.
“In this first round, there really is no potential risk,” he said.