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A Year in America

Is Your Planning Process Strangling Economic Development and Growth?

Does the approval process require such an extensive knowledge of code, rules, regulations, and procedures that it requires the assistance of an attorney or other professional to guide an applicant?

Over a year ago, the Glenwood Springs (Colorado) Community Development Department and the Planning and Zoning Commission were directed by City Council to review and recommend changes to the planning and entitlement process. Several Council members expressed concern and frustration over the complexity and ambiguity of the process and the level of risk that potential developers were taking in order to complete a project.

Apparently those sentiments are and have been felt by other communities. In 2003, a group of architects in Denver, Colorado presented a report entitled “Denver’s Development Review Process: Can It Be Fixed?” to then Mayor John Hickenlooper outlining issues that needed to be addressed. 1 The group, called Citizens to Streamline Our Permitting Process (STOPP), outlined some issues in its report that sound very familiar to those voiced in our own community -- and, perhaps, to concerns in your own city or town.

As the introduction to the report stated, “… it only take a few reversals of agreements or approvals, a few lengthy delays in review, a few conflicts between agency requirements, to turn the process into a nightmare.”

“Successful processes can be extensive, but clear. Their expectations can be great, but known. The reviews can be deliberate, but timely.” AIA Denver STOPP Task Force, 2003

I have a fair understanding of the process that community planners and development departments must complete to ensure compliance with code and comprehensive plans. It is necessary that due diligence has been exercised in review of a project.

Reduce some risk to the applicant by increasing clarity in what is expected.

However, are developers being forced to jump through costly, time consuming, and, at least in their viewpoint, unnecessary hoops by planning officials, department heads, and, in some cases, by planning commissioners as well? Does the approval process require such an extensive knowledge of code, rules, regulations, and procedures that it requires the assistance of an attorney or other professional to guide an applicant, effectively making the entire process too costly for smaller developers?

Some of the issues and concerns identified by our Glenwood Springs city council members included:

  • Reduce inequity of the review process by treating everyone equally and fairly
  • Enhance lines of communication between council, staff, and the planning commissioners. (Our municipal code does not allow city council members to appear personally before the City Council or any Board or Commission).
  • Reduce some risk to the applicant by increasing clarity in what is expected.
  • Lengthen the process if necessary to gain “buy-in” and entitlements prior to the end of the process. 2
  • Confusing and often conflicting codes lead to inconsistent and subjective application by staff, misunderstanding by the applicant and uncertainty by the planning commission.

This was by no means the entire list but the direction was clear. Applicants needed to know what was expected of them and, in turn, what they could expect as the outcome of the process.

Denver's STOPP Report

In Denver’s STOPP report, some of the same issues were identified:

  • The system promotes inequities. Those with more resources achieve success, often eliminating while the “little guy” suffers.
  • Too much emphasis is placed on quantified standards and not enough on reasonably meeting the objectives the standards address.
  • Lack of coordinated, comprehensive response from reviewing agencies.
  • Additional details being required late in the process.
  • Inconsistent review team. Department personnel assigned to review a project varies and with them interpretation of requirements.
  • Excessive up-front detail and engineering required for conceptual review and to achieve basic entitlements. 3

To be fair to Denver, their development code has and is continuing to undergo revision public hearings taking place now. According to the Denver Community Planning and Development website, 4 adoption is expected to take two to three months.

Progress in Glenwood Springs

Probably the most significant change so far has been to the process timeframe.

As with most things, the wheels of progress move slowly. In November 2013, the Glenwood Springs City Council passed several changes to our development code. One was a provision to allow City Council to remand an application back to the Planning and Zoning Commission if the applicant is including new information that has not been vetted by the Commission.

graphic of checklist with green check markProbably the most significant change so far has been to the process timeframe. The application process has been lengthened by two weeks (to allow time for a pre-application meeting between the applicant and staff and representatives from other city departments.

Additionally, the Community Development Department has created flow charts to better clarify how the application moves through the system. Check-lists have also been developed to ensure that all necessary information is included in the application. The checklists will be reviewed and adopted by city council by resolution to allow for easier revision.

While these changes move toward the goals city council set, they do not (as several council members observed) provide the applicant with earlier entitlements or vesting.

Items that are in process, but incomplete, include a specification manual that will clearly spell out goals and objectives, necessary elements, and what items -- if not in compliance by the applicant -- will require a variance or will simply not allow the project to move forward.

What Do You Think?

cartoon image of character being strangled

Are we strangling economic development through too onerous planning processes? There is no question that some level of standards must be maintained. However, it is important to look at and understand the objectives of those standards and determine whether, in this economy, in this place, at this time, the requirements we place on developers are beneficial to the community.

It is certainly true, as our Community Development Director, Andrew McGregor, has stated, that it is easier to loosen regulations than to tighten them. And we all want beautiful, vibrant, communities that speak to who we are. But have we tightened regulations and processes to the point that it is simply not feasible for developers to move even traditional projects forward, let alone ones that might be innovative and a bit out of the ordinary … ones that might be a catalyst for further economic growth for our communities?

What is your community doing to balance this need for regulation and procedure with the need for a diverse, expanding economy? How can we, as citizen planners, play a key role making this happen, or is that simply not our place?

Kathyrn TraugerA Colorado native, born and raised at an altitude of 10,200 feet, Kathy Trauger has descended to an altitude of just below 6,000 feet to live, work, and play in the mountain oasis of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. A member of the Glenwood Springs Planning Commission since 2009, she currently chairs the commission as well as serving on the city’s Transportation Commission and other boards.
By day, Kathy works for Colorado Mountain College in the budget and finance office. Nights and weekends will find her blogging about opportunities and challenges in Glenwood Springs.

Notes:

  1. See "Architects outline problems with city review process" (Denver Business Journal, Nov. 23, 2003).
  2. This can be a complex and confusing point. Most commonly used in land development, entitlements are the right to develop a property for the desired use. “Buy-in,” from the view of some city council members, is not an entitlement but more of an educated guess, based on reasonable assumptions staff could provide to an applicant. This would be based on the broad view of a project and include major issues like building footprint, height, setbacks, required parking, and landscaping requirements. It could also include utility connections, stormwater mitigation, vehicle and pedestrian access, and architectural style, among others. Also at this point, probable variances could be identified. If there were non-negotiable items required by the city, then those could be identified to allow the applicant to decide early on whether the project was feasible as proposed. As the project progresses and more detail is provided, along with further review and analysis (unless the original assumptions were proven to be incorrect ), staff would stand by their original buy-in and not reverse or significantly change it without justification.
  3. Developers often create a Sketch Plan which is an early first draft of the proposed development. The Sketch Plan does not show engineering detail. Often developers are being required to present a more extensive plan, showing engineering detail, design detail, landscaping and other components, prior to coming before the Planning Commission or City Council for a conceptual review or to proceed with the application.
  4. Denver Community Planning and Development website