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Thread: Dealing with premature project approvals

  1. #1
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
    Jan 2005
    Land of Confusion

    Dealing with premature project approvals

    Most developers approach obtaining municipal approvals like most people approach going to the dentist- i.e., just get it over with, and inflict the least amount of pain possible. Developing real estate is challenging enough without having to navigate what can be rather perverse permissioning requirements, that much I can understand. However, most local Planning Boards are more than fair with developers/applicants, and in reality only a small percentage of projects get denied. It is more common for local Boards to deny land use entitlements (i.e. zoning changes, variances, special use permits) than site plan applications, which invariably are permitted uses.

    Some Planning Departments are actually so generous they will grant developers project approvals without even requiring the developer to submit full engineering and architectural plans. Essentially, projects can be approved without the applicant/engineer actually designing much, short of a rough site plan and a computerized building rendering. The problem with this, of course, is that the local government doesn't really know what it is approving. They might have a general idea, but the devil is always in the details, and things like lighting and fences and dumpsters can make for upset neighbors. And chances are the project will be changed since the design considerations haven't been worked out. This usually means the applicant will be back to the Planning Board requesting various project changes, or dealing with staff if these requests can be done administratively.

    There are usually competing demands to be considered. On one hand, the developer doesn't want to have to pay for upfront engineering/architectural services that may not be neccessary to get the approval. On the other hand, the local government may not be able to determine whether the project meets all the applicable regulations without plans which depict all the neccessary details.

    As a municipal planner, I'm always struggling to get developers to fully design projects. I know the answer is to have stricter zoning and design requirements, but this is not always acceptable to City Managers and politicians who generally don't value design and often share a "just build it" mentality with developers.

    I'd like to hear various perspectives on this issue, hopefully from both private consultants (dark-siders)and other municipal planners. Is this a problem in your jurisdiction? Why/Why not?

  2. #2
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
    May 2003
    Staff meeting
    Well, first you need to define the regulatory scheme one works under.

    It sounds like your scheme is a "mandatory board/commission review" process - meaning most development plans for permitted uses must be reviewed and approved by an appointed and/or elected body.

    Within that context, the plan development for review should not a minimum be preliminary architecture and engineering (preliminary meaning a small step to final). It is certainly problematic when a site plan review involves a plan that is more conceptual and has barely, if at all, actually engineered. My last job was with a muni. that does mandatory board/commission review. They pretty much require final construction plans for the commission review and I think it was a specifically required in the development code. That certainly does make the permitting process easier and alleviates the problems of after the fact engineering.

    As for my current muni, we have an "as of right" process - basically anything that is a permitted use can be built with simply a permit and compliance with the municipal codes, although all entitlement requests (as you mentioned above) do require a commission review. As to the extent of plan development we require, it really depends on the nature of the request. A special use review for a new restaurant building with drive-thru we usually require preliminary engineering of the site and final architectural review. That way we as presenting a pretty accurate plan to the commission/board of what will actually be built.

    Plus, we have a preliminary process before projects are even submitted for commission review. We can hammer out most of this issues before the developer/applicant even submits official plans for review.

    In summary, I say you require at least preliminary site engineering and architecture plans (meaning the site layout and engineering are pretty much done). That way it would be less likely for the plan to have to change drastically once the developer actually starts engineering the plan.
    Last edited by mendelman; 13 Aug 2008 at 3:39 PM.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Every day is today. Yesterday is a myth and tomorrow an illusion.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian biscuit's avatar
    Nov 2002
    Paris of Appalachia
    Having worked both sides of the counter, I find that requiring a full set of architectural and engineering documents available before granting final project approval is asking too much of the architects time and the developers money. If the point of development review is to mitigate negative externalities of development, it seems that the only final documents you should be requiring are landscape, site plan, façade renderings, storm water plans and traffic studies.

    As for the reluctance to municipal leaders to making stricter zoning and design guidelines, my personal opinion is that that as long as they don’t exponentially raise the design and preconstruction costs, strict guidelines are not a deterrent to developers. Well, at least not to good developers. Making sure that those strong guidelines are clear, logical, legal, and combined with a streamlined/short public meeting and review process is much more important than making them weak. It’s a lot of times that those weak, but fuzzy regulations cause bureaucratic and political headaches.

    Of course, being able to build whatever you want wherever you want does seem attractive at times.

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