COUNTY OF ALBEMARLE
Community Development Update and Process Improvement Worksession
Consider strategies for improvement of development review processes in Community Development.
Tucker, Foley, Davis, Graham
LEGAL REVIEW: Yes
June 1, 2005
ACTION: X INFORMATION:
The purpose of this report is to update the Board on completion of the transition to the Community Development Department and to seek direction on development review process improvement strategies.
In June of 2003, staff presented a proposal to the Board for the consolidation of the three development departments (Building Inspection and Zoning Services, the engineering staff of Engineering and Public Works, and Planning and Community Development) into a single department called Community Development. This reorganization was proposed to provide customers a single point of contact for all development related activities and to improve review processes. The department was reorganized by July of 2004 and has been operating consistent with the 2003 proposal.
The major emphasis of this reorganization has been focused on business process improvements and improvements in the development review process. The Board has recently emphasized the need to expedite the development review process. In carrying out this goal, staff seeks direction on process improvement strategies the Board would like to see implemented.
Goal 3.3: Develop and implement policies that address the County’s growth and urbanization while continuing to enhance the factors that contribute to the quality of life in the County.
Goal 4.1: Protect effective, responsive and courteous service to our customers.
The Department now provides a single point of contact for all development related issues with the County. The County’s and Department’s Vision Statements are provided in Attachment A and a Department organizational chart is provided as Attachment B. The primary function of each division shown on the organizational chart is as follows:
To assist the Board in understanding County development review processes, staff has compared Albemarle to other localities regarding the normal tasks involved in development review. That data is shared in Attachment C. Two points should be explained with this data. First, “VAZO” refers to the Virginia Association of Zoning Officials survey of plan review processes in localities across Virginia. The complete VAZO survey can be found on the Internet at http://www.vazo.org/documents/survey_results200503.pdf (please note that this data does not provide for a standardized measurement for reporting). Second, staff typically monitors project review times based on “90% reviews”, which is the time it takes for 90% of the plans to be acted upon. Most other localities use average or median review times. Staff uses the 90% review times because the average or median review time does not represent a time that applicants can count on in scheduling their projects, given that ½ of the applicants would experience longer times. For example, the median review time might be 10 days, but the 90% review time could be 20 days. That difference illustrates the variation in review times. For this discussion, staff is presenting the process in four groups, using the most common processes to illustrate the County’s performance in each area.
Building Permits and Inspections:
These functions are related to the issuance of building permits and the associated inspections. Those processes are purely administrative. Staff reviews and approves building permits, then performs the related inspections. This is, by far, the largest number of applications received by the department. On a typical work day, roughly 100 building inspections are requested and 10-15 building permits or associated “sub permits” are issued. The attached data show that the County is providing similar times to other jurisdictions when median times are compared. In examining the data further, staff found that while the median time for issuance of a permit is 10 days, the time for 90% of the applications was 31 days. The difference in review times was found to be permits in the rural area that require Health Department approval for septic systems. Excluding those building permits that require Health Department approval, County review times are similar to those of comparable localities. While staff could report the review times without Health Department approval, as most localities do, it does not really represent the time it is taking the builder from application to permit.
In looking at this process, staff believes the review times are comparable to others and efforts in this area should be focused on providing the customer better tracking information for permit applications and clearly defining requirements for permit applications. With the former, the database used for tracking applications, CityView, has the ability to provide access over the Internet and this upgrade to our current software was approved with the FY 05-06 budget. Staff will begin efforts at implementation of this access in the second half of the year and plan to have it operational by early 2006. With the latter, staff is working to reduce problems and uncertainties experienced by applicants. In this regard, staff collects customer service input on a continual basis to find where applicants feel improvements are needed.
Ministerial reviews are those associated with “by right” development, such as site plans and subdivision plats. Ministerial reviews are different from legislative reviews as there is no discretion in approval. As long as the plan or plat satisfies the ordinance requirements, it must be approved. Those plans are typically reviewed by staff, but plans and plats are subject to being reviewed by the Planning Commission. As shown in Attachment C, the County’s approval times tend to be longer than many other localities, but that is comparing median times to 90% review times. Further, in examining the data, County review times, the time from submission to receiving comments, were found to be comparable or lower than most localities. With process improvements over the last year, staff has reduced these review times from almost 4 weeks to 2 weeks for 90% of the submissions. The longer completion times are generally a result of a plan needing to be resubmitted with corrections before it can be approved. In considering strategies for reducing approval times, staff has noted several factors to consider.
· The County has a more complex ordinance than many localities. For example, when formatted the same, Albemarle County’s subdivision ordinance is 62 pages compared to Augusta County’s subdivision ordinance at 25 pages. Albemarle County’s subdivision ordinance is a reflection of this community’s concern with the quality of development and the urbanizing nature of the Development Areas, resulting in a more complex ordinance. Length and complexity of requirements results in a longer checklist for staff review and often results in uncertainty on the part of applicants, which in turn necessitates the need for plan changes to gain approval. Staff is working at reducing this uncertainty by making detailed checklists available to applicants so they can see precisely what is required for approval, but that does not alter the number of issues that must be considered.
· VDOT review is taking longer than staff review. While staff may review a plan in 2 weeks, VDOT is typically taking 3-4 weeks. Put bluntly, VDOT resources are stretched. Until VDOT receives better funding or prioritizes plan reviews over other functions, it does not appear possible to improve their review times.
· Planning Commission reviews require additional staff resources that could be spent on speeding up reviews of other plans. It should be noted that Albemarle County is the only locality in Attachment C that provides Planning Commission review for both site plans and subdivision plats. Most localities appear to keep Planning Commission involvement limited to larger projects. Plats and plans are called up for Planning Commission review by Planning Commission members, concerned neighbors, and with requests for waivers or modification of ordinance requirements (e.g. critical slopes waivers). Each time a plan or plat is called before the Planning Commission, staff must prepare a detailed report for the meeting and present this report to the Planning Commission. That additional work can roughly double the staff time spent on the review of a project. It is also important to recognize that staff’s interpretation of the ordinance is not always the same as the Planning Commission, including some recent well publicized projects. The same can be said of interpretations of the County Board versus the Planning Commission, with some Planning Commission decisions reversed. Recognizing this fact, some ordinance waiver provisions are routine administrative decisions handled with minimal delay, while others require Planning Commission action. Reducing the number of plans and waivers subject to Planning Commission review would significantly reduce the approval time for many plans. In considering such a change, it should be recognized there can be circumstances where staff’s interpretation of the ordinance will be different than the Planning Commission’s. By reducing or eliminating plan and waiver review by the Planning Commission, it will provide the Planning Commission additional time for long-range planning issues and allow them to expedite major project review.
· Notifications to adjoining property owners are not required by State law but are extensively used by the County to assure neighbors are aware of development occurring around them. While keeping the public informed is a benefit to the community, this does require significant time and resources. Additionally, it can add steps to the review process. As a result of this notification, plans are often called before the Planning Commission. While the Planning Commission meeting provides the opportunity to address concerns, neighbors are often dismayed to find that the Planning Commission must approve a plan if it meets the ordinance requirements regardless of their concerns. Effectively, the notification process can create a false hope that a neighbor’s concerns can influence the decision while the reality is plans that satisfy the ordinance requirements must be approved. Anecdotally, staff often sees neighbors leave Planning Commission meetings angry and confused, feeling that neither staff nor the Planning Commission seriously considered their concerns.
As noted above, staff is currently working on preparing detailed checklists for applicants that should reduce the uncertainty with the process. Staff believes this will provide some improvement in review times and the number of submittals required to reach approval. Staff believes the County would need to consider reducing requirements and/or consider eliminating Planning Commission review for many ministerial reviews to further reduce times. Staff also believes that by expediting the ministerial reviews, the development community will be more prone to develop in the development areas and embrace the neighborhood model strategies and further reduce the pressure on the rural areas.
Legislative reviews, rezonings (ZMAs) and special use permits (SPs), are discretionary matters that can only be approved by the Board of Supervisors. The Planning Commission and staff provide recommendations to the Board for those decisions. Referring to Attachment C, the data shows that County approval times for rezonings are similar to Loudoun and Fauquier, but those times are considerably longer than many other localities. Albemarle’s SP review times were similar to most other localities. In considering strategies for reducing action times with rezonings, staff has noted several factors to consider.
To summarize, staff believes the special use permit process appears to work similarly to other localities and process improvement should focus on better checklists. The County’s rezoning process appears to work similar to Fauquier and Loudoun County, but takes considerably more time and effort than many other localities. To date, the emphasis in the rezoning process has been on seeking the best possible plan with little or no emphasis on the time it takes to gain the best possible plan.
For the County to appreciably reduce the time spent on rezonings, staff would recommend considering a policy on deferrals. Such a policy would effectively force staff, the applicant, and Planning Commission into limiting the time that could be spent in working on a plan before bringing it to the Board. Once the rezoning application was before the Board, the Board could consider whether additional time with the Planning Commission would yield an appreciably better plan. If the Board felt this time was worth the delay, the plan could be allowed to return to the Planning Commission for further refinement. If the Board felt the delay would not result in appreciable improvement, an action would be taken. In considering such a strategy, staff believes the Board should weigh the likelihood that this change could simply transfer the review complexities to the Board. Staff suspects this strategy could increase the number of split decisions by the Board on land use decisions.
Finally, staff believes an established proffer policy would reduce the uncertainty for applicants and reduce the time required to resolve proffer concerns. That said, staff also believes developing a proffer policy could require an extensive effort by both staff and the Board. That effort would compete with resources that might otherwise be used on efforts such as the Rural Area Plan implementation, Northern Area Master Plan, and ordinance amendments currently in process. An estimate of resources required for this effort and priority would need to be developed if the Board was interested in pursuing a proffer policy.
Comprehensive Plan and Ordinance Amendments:
As shown on Attachment E, the last year has seen a significant number of these policy issues completed. While staff is proud of the volume completed in the last year, it should be noted some of these were complex efforts started several years ago. Other issues generated little public concern and the public process was relatively simple. Some issues were brought forward with unresolved public concerns, which complicated the considerations of the County Board. As such, the volume completed last year reflects a combination of coincidental timing and staff trying to expedite the process whenever possible. Also, it should be noted that no staff is solely dedicated to these efforts. With each issue, staff balances their time spent on the issue against the need for timely completion of legislative and ministerial reviews. In that regard, recognizing that other reviews often have legal deadlines for completion, these issues are often forced to take a lower priority.
While some Comprehensive Plan and ordinance amendments are initiated by applicants, the major efforts are typically initiated by the County itself. Staff found little comparison data from other localities on the time spent with these efforts. Similar to Albemarle County, controversial proposals in other localities usually require a lengthy public process. A review of County projects shows considerable variation in both the time and resources required for these projects. For example, recent County efforts on the Crozet Master Plan, Rural Area Plan, Sign Ordinance, and Subdivision Text Amendment (STA) demonstrate that considerable time and resources can be required for discussions and worksessions. Additionally, Board appointed committees can require extended periods of time to form recommendations for these policy issues. That is understandable given those committees members seldom share a common and detailed understanding of the issue before them and it is difficult for committee members to commit large blocks of time to this work. Thus, a large part of their work can be spent on reaching common understanding, only to struggle with the recognition that solutions often require compromise. That becomes even more complicated when the committee desires consensus with its recommendations. Staff also notes it is difficult to accurately predict the time and resources required for the public process with controversial proposals. The recently approved Subdivision Text Amendment process and the current Mountain Overlay District work are examples of how difficult it can be to schedule resources when working on controversial issues. The STA process required resources that would otherwise have worked on completing the Neighborhood Model Zoning Ordinance amendments. Similarly, the Mountain Overlay work will be competing for the same staff resources that might otherwise be dedicated to work on Rural Area Plan implementation.
In considering strategies for improving the process, staff believes the emphasis should be on better defining Board expectations prior to the start of the work. Using the recently completed Rural Area Plan as a case study, it is noted that worksessions were used at the start of this process to define expectations with the hope this would minimize time spent with the Planning Commission and Board at the end of the process. Staff believes that we did, in fact, reduce the time and effort required by the Planning Commission and Board.
Staff requests the Board provide guidance as to process improvement strategies they wish to explore. Staff will then schedule a work session for discussion of how the strategies could be implemented and the issues where Board direction is needed.
With regard to building permit applications and inspections, staff has noted the County’s processes are similar to others and little opportunity exists for additional improvement without increasing staff resources. Staff will continue to work on improving quality control to reduce errors and implementing CityView for customers to check on review status over the Internet.
With regard to ministerial reviews, staff has noted process improvements being developed in the form of detailed checklists and streamlining administrative processes. If further improvements in the process are desired, staff suggested consideration of limiting Planning Commission review of site plans and/or subdivision plats to larger, more complex plans as was the practice in other localities. Similarly, staff can work on reviewing current ordinances for possible opportunities to reduce requirements. If the Board is interested in considering a reduction in the current requirements, staff will develop a list of potential changes and bring this to the Board for consideration.
With regard to legislative reviews, staff believes improvement can best be gained in reducing the use of deferrals and establishing a proffer policy. The change in accepting deferrals would be a Board policy and relatively easy to implement. The proffer policy would need to be adopted into the Comprehensive Plan and would require a detailed analysis to support the policy. A proffer policy is anticipated to require considerable staff resources and could be controversial, depending on the guidelines in the policy. If the Board is interested in considering either of these options, staff will develop proposals for the Board’s consideration.
With regard to Comprehensive Plan and ordinance changes, staff believes improvement can best be gained through improvement in the public process, primarily by defining expectations at the start of the process, and by setting hard deadlines for completion of work. The later measures would require those involved to set a schedule for completion of tasks and shift focus more towards completion deadlines at the risk of not fully vetting some issues.
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