Streamlining the Development Process

by Emily Keys Innes, AICP, LEED AP ND

The old adage that “time is money” is particularly true when undertaking the permitting process for new development. Developers who are moving from low-density residential to multifamily or mixed-use may not be familiar with the processes for site plan approval or the granting of a special permit, and may not have the appropriate team in place at the beginning of the project. The lack of a coordinated team may delay the process, subject the developer to additional costs, and threaten the success of the project.

The precise composition of the team will depend on the complexity of the project, and the local process for the type of development under consideration. Complex projects – not necessarily large ones – may include a land use planner, architect, engineer and landscape architect to examine site conditions, a lawyer or land use planner to assess the regulatory environment and permitting process, and a financial expert to help evaluate feasibility. Specialists, including traffic, environmental and market analysts, can address specific project needs or potential community concerns. The composition of the team will depend on the process required: a team for as-of-right development will require fewer specialists than one for a special permit on a site with physical constraints, such as wetlands, or for a project that has significant community opposition.

The team should work with the municipal staff to understand the community’s specific requirements for the pre-application process, the application itself, and the public hearing process. Time – and money – can be lost if the team does not identify the information needs and critical deadlines prior to submittal of the application.

The team should know the different municipal bodies and state agencies that may act on some or all of their application. My experience as a former Planning Board member provides several examples of projects that had significant problems during the approval process.

In each case the development team did not understand the requirements of either the regulatory environment or of the approval process, a failure to understand that the Planning Board, the Conservation Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection had jurisdiction over changes to a site caused a long and costly delay for the developer of a mixed-use project (still unbuilt). The developer made a change to the site during the approval process that triggered regulatory repercussions from two of the bodies.

Another mixed-use project was not built because the length of the process, which included meeting local and Chapter 91 regulations, was perfectly timed with the onset of the 2007-2009 recession.

Smooth the Road Ahead

The team should prepare an application that clearly identifies how the project meets the regulatory requirements, call out in detail which waivers (if any) will be requested, is technically accurate and complete, and tracks the applicable zoning regulations in a logical and organized method. A clear, concise and complete application will shorten the approval process and save time, money and headaches. A final cautionary example involves an application for a special permit that was technically complete, but so disorganized that much of the yearlong public hearing process was taken up with challenges by opponents claiming that the information provided in the application did not meet the standards of the requirements in the zoning.

For projects that represent significant change to a neighborhood, the development team should consider the appropriate stage at which to begin neighborhood discussions. This was the successful strategy for the team for an apartment building. This team began the community discussions a year before the formal application process. The approval process which required decisions from both the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Planning Board, was shorter than average as a result of the early input from the neighborhood. The team should incorporate information that addresses neighborhood and community concerns into the application itself, rather than identifying questions midway through the process that contribute to delays.

The small and/or mid-size developer is more likely to have an efficient process if the developer assembles the right team for the project and collaborates with that team to effectively interact with the community, the municipal staff and the regulatory and permit-granting bodies. In the long run, a smoother process will have a positive impact on the bottom line and ensure that the project is more likely to be built.

This article originally appeared in Banker & Tradesman on July 24, 2016