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Development is big business and an ongoing source of controversy throughout San Diego. Strains population growth puts on housing costs and natural resources are among the city’s most pressing policy challenges.

We’ve been digging through the last 10 years of the city’s records on new development to learn as much as possible about how the city’s dealing with growth, whether city bureaucracy is as stifling as you’ve heard and what’s keeping the situation from improving.

Here are four early takeaways.

Yeah, getting building permits takes a while, but it’s speeding up.

The most common gripe in the development world is that getting permission for big projects takes forever. And since time is money, that delay just hits everyone in the wallet.

So, how long does it take? For the types of projects that require approval from a city official — not just a city staffer — it typically takes about nine months.

And it’s been getting faster each year since 2008.

It took almost a year and a half to get a major permit in 2008. The current nine-month time frame, though, is comparable to where it was in 2006, before things spiked during the recession. That’s partly because …

Developers have a lot of say in how long the permit process takes.

The time it took to get a permit basically tracks the state of the real estate market. It was quick when things were booming, took forever when everything sucked and has been getting better and better during the recovery. The data points to one partial explanation: Things slowed down because developers didn’t really want things to go fast anymore. When the bottom fell out of the real estate market, developers started dragging their feet. When the market came back, so did their sense of urgency. The city ended up approving a much larger share of all the applications it received. It suggests not only that developers got more serious about actually getting their projects through, but also that they might have been getting more realistic about what they proposed in the first place. Both things would help drive down approval times.

If you play by the rules, wait times plummet.

Now that approval times are back to where they were before the recession, there’s one big thing to remember: Developers always have the option of avoiding the whole process of getting special permission to build something. Projects that fit within the predetermined restrictions on a property get approved really, really quickly. Don’t want to wait a year to get approval? Follow the rules, and you’re on your way in more like a month.

That line at the bottom of this chart measures how long it takes to get permits for projects that fully comply with all existing restrictions. The one on top measures approval times for more discretionary permits, the ones for complicated projects that require further review.

The city spends a lot of time talking about how it can speed up approval times for those discretionary permits.

What this shows, though, is that it could make a much more substantial impact if it focused on making more projects eligible for that simple, lower-level review, instead of on incremental improvements to what will always be a relatively lengthy process including technical reviews and community feedback.

The thing is, the city already knows this. It’s just done a bad job making it happen.

The city’s streamlining efforts could use some streamlining.

The way the city can move a big chunk of new development from the lengthy, special review process to the straightforward, quick process is by updating the community plans — future growth blueprints for specific areas — in the places most likely to attract development.

That’s exactly what the city’s trying to do.

Over the last 13 years, the city’s spent over $15 million trying to update the growth outlines for 12 communities.

It’s successfully implemented one new plan.

The thought is an updated plan makes everyone happy — developers get faster approvals for a lot of projects, but those are all projects the community has said they’re willing to live with. And the city has to deal with fewer scuffles, because most of the issues are straightened out ahead of time.

So the problem hasn’t been knowing what to do. It’s just been a matter of actually doing it.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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