Building on the NAIOP Research Foundation’s recent study, The Development Approvals Index: A New Tool to Evaluate Local Approvals Processes, several NAIOP chapters and George Mason University have collected data on development approvals across the United States and Canada.
To date, Mason’s data collection has focused on nine jurisdictions:
- City and County of Denver, Colorado;
- City of Austin, Texas;
- Seattle, Washington;
- Bellevue, Washington;
- City of Columbus, Ohio;
- Des Moines, Iowa;
- St. Louis, Missouri;
- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and
- Salt Lake County, Utah.
Using the index, the jurisdictions were evaluated on their building plan review, permitting and inspections processes. The results of this research reveal the relative strengths of jurisdictions in the implementation of faster, more consistent regulatory processes. Developers can benefit from a more precise and accurate way of predicting the duration and cost of the approvals process. This research tracks measures of transparency, accountability, and consistency, all of which affect the duration and cost of approvals. Jurisdictions interested in improving their development outcomes can do so by benchmarking the important features, information and processes reflected in the Development Approvals Index.
Individual jurisdictions have adopted different measures identified in the index as contributing to an improved approvals process. For example, a detailed fee schedule and calculator that is accurate and inclusive of all fees is a useful tool for developers to predict the cost of the permitting process. Seattle and Bellevue provide good examples of this and include different fee calculators on their respective websites. Providing the option to expedite or shorten the plan review time is another example of an improvement to the approval process that may be helpful for some developers. Jurisdictions looking to add this option to their process can benchmark the City of Columbus and the City of Austin, which provide two different ways to expedite a review at an additional cost.
The permitting process can be cumbersome and complex with many steps, processes and divisions involved. The City and County of Denver provides a detailed Commercial Building Permit Guide to assist applicants through the process. For more complex projects, jurisdictions such as Bellevue and St. Louis offer a pre-submission conference with detailed requirements for the meeting. This allows for members of the development team to meet regulatory staff and further understand the permitting requirements and for regulatory staff to become familiar with the proposed project and identify potential issues early in the permitting process.
Submitting all the information and documentation required for plan review and the permitting process can be cumbersome but is vital for completing the process smoothly. Many jurisdictions now perform an initial deficiency review to verify all critical components of the application are included through their online submission portal. Going one step further, Pittsburgh and the City of Austin also include plan review checklists for designers to utilize prior to submitting building plans. Both initial deficiency reviews and checklist help assure all required information is present for a faster plan review.
Many jurisdictions have found different creative ways to disseminate information about how efficiently they review plans, inspect buildings and process permits. For example, Des Moines, St. Louis, and Bellevue provide their yearly permit totals. Salt Lake City and Austin track the number of permits, inspections, and the duration of plan review monthly. The City and County of Denver and Seattle provide a self-assessment comparing their performance with their target plan review duration. While sharing data on plan reviews, inspections, and permit processing is helpful, jurisdictions can take the additional step of publishing a target time to completion for each phase, which can help applicants more easily predict how long each process will take. Measuring performance against this target can also help a jurisdiction improve its efficiency and maintain consistency.
The Development Approvals Index evaluates jurisdictions’ approval processes using verifiable information. With this tool, jurisdictions, developers, professional associations, and the public can identify where jurisdictions excel and ways that they can improve. Public officials can turn to data collected for other jurisdictions to identify model policies and procedures that they can adopt to improve their own processes. As a next step in this project, the NAIOP Research Foundation will take insights gained from data collected in 2021 to improve the index and will publish the data it has collected this year and accompanying findings in the first quarter of 2022.
Valerie Maislin is a Professional Engineer for Fairfax County Park Authority development team, managing design and construction projects. She has experience as a building plan reviewer and building inspector for Fairfax County. Currently, she is a graduate student in the Real Estate Development program at George Mason University.