Codes of Conduct

When it comes to crafting stronger permitting processes, communication is key

Back Longreads Feb 20, 2018 By Russell Nichols

Just 143 days — that’s all it took for the City of Roseville to complete its permitting process, securing the new distribution facility for an affiliate of McKesson Corp., the country’s biggest pharmaceutical distributor (No. 5 on the Fortune 500). In less than five months, the City had not only granted the building permit, but finished the plan review, inspection and environmental check.

The 316,100-square-foot warehouse at 7701 Foothills Boulevard is slated to be completed this month and fully operational by mid-2018, employing 166 people in logistics and material-handling jobs.

Roseville managed to beat out other cities nationwide vying for McKesson. Based in Newport Beach, Panattoni Development Company joined the project, praising Roseville’s concurrent permitting process as the most critical selection component.

Related: Meeting of Minds

“I’ve rarely seen this level of commitment,” says Brent Collins, senior development manager for Panattoni. “You can really get pushed out five, six, seven weeks beyond deadline in another situation. The smart cities make themselves developer-friendly by getting you through the process so you’re not looking at this fog of risk in front of you, between you and the completion.”

To be fair, Roseville’s situation is unique. It’s a full-service city with its own fire, police and parks departments, and also water, sewer, solid waste and power. Other jurisdictions need to organize efforts among several departments, separate utilities and third parties. But Roseville can coordinate all requirements for developers under one review with no input from outside entities, says Chris Robles, Roseville’s economic development director.

“The development environment is changing, and processes need to respond to that,” Robles says. “Continuous improvement is a key component.”

Historically, the permitting process has been a logistical mess for many developers. But the future of economic development depends on this process. Local governments try to speed up turnaround times because officials know what’s at stake: Slow approvals trigger delays in construction, which can hinder growth, hold up jobs and hurt revenue. Every jurisdiction can’t be Roseville, but in recent years, local governments have made efforts to emulate the one-stop shop model, recognizing the value of not just speed, but access and communication.

SEEING EYE TO EYE

In the past, the permitting process has looked more like a game of public sector pinball: Submitters get bounced around to different departments to get plans reviewed, or find answers to questions about codes, zones or fees. Recently, jurisdictions have worked to fix this, scheduling weekly meetings and coordinating department representatives under one umbrella for easy access and better communication.

Elk Grove, for example, broke down its siloed approach three years ago to improve efficiency. Rancho Cordova took a similar route, creating a development services team, comprised of department representatives from public works, the building department, planning department, metro fire, other city departments, even Sacramento County. This setup offers the submitter access to multiple departments in a single meeting to get preliminary questions answered, helping them make project decisions, key connections, and move their projects along quicker, says Elizabeth Sparkman, Rancho Cordova’s acting community development director.

“We really started this process for projects that needed extra help,” she says. “[Project proponents] can bring in the smallest or biggest projects. We’ve gone through this with people from Texas or North Dakota and they go, ‘This is great!’”

She cites an extended stay hotel, a project from North Dakota, as a recent example of a group that went through the process. Joe Cuffe, the city’s building official, notes the average response time for permit approval doesn’t exceed 10 days. Since 2009, he says, the number of permits issued in the city has increased by about 100 a year.

“For a small city like us, that’s a pretty big number,” Cuffe says.

In 2013, Sacramento County also revamped its process, creating business assistance centers for applicants to have quick access to various departments. There are now four of these centers spread throughout the county, with the full-service commercial center downtown at 827 7th Street and the full-service residential center at 9700 Goethe Road.

“In the old days, you would get routed from department to department,” says John Lundgren, senior planner in the county’s planning and environmental review office. “In these centers, you walk in, meet with a concierge who then puts you into the system. It’s much more customer friendly, more like a one-stop shop.”

TIME = MONEY

Unlike other municipalities, Sacramento County has a much wider scope, overseeing seven incorporated cities, each one with its own requirements. Not that this is a workflow problem, but it adds layers to the process. Smoothing out that process by communicating better and preventing delays causes a chain reaction that leads to stronger returns for local businesses, according to Troy Givans, the county’s director of economic development.

“Our goal is to keep the permitting process as efficient as possible in order to allow businesses to continue to maximize their investments in their organizations with critical hires and expansion,” he says. “This will result in job growth and business opportunities.”

But efficiency isn’t one-size-fits-all. The location, size and scope of the project impacts the timetable. The county’s turnaround times for permits can be 7, 14 or 21 working days, depending on the project type and estimated project value. The guidelines note that turnaround times “may vary slightly due to the current staff workload, complexity and clarity of the project and plans,” but the county usually meets these targets, says Robert Logsdon, the county’s chief building official.

“We understand that time is money and folks who want to build something don’t want to wait two-to-three months to get started,” he says. “So we’re very concerned about meeting these deadlines.”

In Davis, officials review smaller projects — like an HVAC change-out or electrical panel upgrades — over the counter, says Gregory Mahoney, the city’s assistant director for Community Development and Sustainability. In the next few months, he adds, these types of permits will be submitted and issued online.

“In the building division, we have a three-week turnaround time,” Mahoney says. “We typically hit that. Every now and then, we might go a little over that, sometimes less. What oftentimes may impact a project is how long it takes an applicant or design team to respond.”

SPEED LIMITS

To rectify delays in the permitting process, Region Business, a business advocacy group in Sacramento, created a “permit simplicity” program for jurisdictions to adopt. The system uses a fast-track review process so architects or designers can make any necessary revisions to plans after the permit has been issued, as opposed to finalizing everything in advance.

“We should be able to do it within one day,” says Robert Abelon, senior vice president of Region Business. “All it takes is clearing the path, cutting red tape for things that should be relatively simple.”

In 2015, Abelon pitched the program to Elk Grove, hoping to use the city as a model and then expand to other jurisdictions. Coming in as a private sector outsider, he says, some jurisdictions were reluctant to try anything new.

“In order to do anything, you need buy-in from the inside and outside,” Abelon says.

Even in Elk Grove, only two projects have used the program so far. Some of the issue is getting the word out, educating the industry that the program exists. But also, many developers find the current system works well enough. The regular permit turnaround takes about one week, and many developers prefer to submit finalized plans over rough drafts, says Shane Diller, assistant director of development services.

“You find a lot of architects or designers don’t want to go through a revision-on-the-fly system,” Diller says, speaking anecdotally. “That puts responsibility and risk on the submitter, the architect or engineer. They may have to stop a job that’s already started if there’s a glaring error.”

But he has no plans to shelve the program. He believes it can work in tandem with other programs like the popular T.I. Tuesdays, where businesses that need to make tenant improvements can meet with city agencies to do plan review all at once.

For Laura Kass, T.I. Tuesdays has been an unbelievable fusion of speed and communication. As a building permit processor for the Sacramento-based All Access Permits, she works with about a dozen clients in multiple jurisdictions to help expedite residential and commercial permits, primarily for smaller end projects.

“It was slower before,” Kass says, recalling the days before T.I. Tuesdays. “Now, rather than wait three weeks to get a permit, I can get it in a day. Some jurisdictions are more lengthy, and time is money in this business.” 

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