Article

Red Tape

Gaylen Webb

August 1, 2012

“How can you serve on a planning commission and not know your boundaries?” Shields marvels. “The project turned out to be very good for the city and was approved on appeal to the city council in a matter of minutes, but the planning commission meeting was a complete waste of time.”

Scott Wilmarth, senior vice president at CBRE, says there is a consensus among developers that permitting processes in communities around the Salt Lake Valley are inconsistent and the delivery of services is sometimes arbitrary. “One time the interaction might be immediate, while another time it might be handed off to a third party,” he explains. “While they might not keep deals from getting done, the inconsistencies make project timelines and commencement dates unpredictable, which can cause landlords to lose their rental streams.”

Finding Remedies
Wilmarth says permitting delays were egregious two or three years ago, “to a place that was really concerning.” He notes that Salt Lake City became more proactive to the business community by hiring more third parties to conduct plan reviews. “But hiring third parties has created inconsistencies, especially when the plan review gets delegated to an engineer in California.”

Orion Goff, director of building services and zoning enforcement for Salt Lake City, says the city does outsource a portion of its plan reviews to third parties to help keep turnaround times under 30 working days. The city also guarantees a 10-working-day turnaround time for first comments for any plans that pay for expediting.

“If you ask my staff, they really dislike outsourcing because we have to QC the work that the outsourcing firm does anyway. We are the ones required to sign it off before a permit can be issued,” he says.

The outsourcing firms are contractually obligated to have first comments back in 10 working days, and Goff says he doesn’t know of any situations where the outsourcing firms have not met that mandate. “We guarantee they will get second review comments back in five working days, but we have no control over how quickly developers get plans back to us to re-review,” he says.

Goff notes that there is tendency for architectural firms and developers to use the city as an excuse for delays. “That’s pretty common,” he says.

To short circuit the blame game, Goff says Salt Lake City works hard to make sure the building owners are in the loop. “If we are given the contact information for the owner, realtor or whoever is involved, we will send the comments to them as well, as we proceed through the process, so there is accountability on both sides. That way the architect, engineer or designer can’t tell their customer that we are holding them up, if that is in fact not the case,” he explains.

Greater Collaboration
Lucero says economic challenges demand that private businesses operate as efficiently as possible, but some city offices don’t seem to feel the need for efficiency and cooperation. “I wish we had more collaboration between developers and the municipalities. It would make us more profitable and allow us to bring in more businesses to the state. We are doing a lot of good things, but there is still a lot of frustration out there, especially when there is an ‘oh well’ type attitude and a blame game mentality at city hall. It becomes very frustrating,” he says.

Goff says Salt Lake City established its development review team (DRT) to be more collaborative and proactive with developers. The DRT is a multi-disciplinary group of city employees from the various divisions that meet four days a week with developers in advance of plan submittal. Developers get to come into those meetings and present their projects and receive comments back from the multidisciplinary team.

“It is definitely a value-added service that the developers really appreciate. They can find out about the showstoppers—the technical issues—early on in their projects, before they have even submitted plans to us,” he says.

Developers use the DRT reviews widely. Goff says the city does as many as five review meetings in an afternoon, four days a week. “It is a substantial investment of staff time, but we feel like it is worth it because we get a heads up on developer projects and we can give them timely feedback. That way when they do make a submittal, their plans are more complete, which helps everyone involved in the process.”

And for a city that issues between 8,500 and 9,000 permits per year, having an advance look at big development projects can only enhance the permitting process for both developers and the city. To be sure, it offers the ability for developers and the city to work together more effectively, which is something everyone appreciates.

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