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Streamlining the Permitting Process

By Bill R. Shelton, CEcD

National Challenge and Competition

This past week, the National League of Cities, the White House and the Small Business Administration (SBA) announced a national challenge and competition for cities to cut regulatory red tape and support the growth of local businesses and entrepreneurship by developing online tools that let business owners discover and apply - in less than a day - for permits and licenses needed to start or expand a business. Learn more here about the competition for communities to streamline their permitting processes and also be eligible for cash awards.

Why It Matters

The announcement is in recognition of an important reality: effective regulations and efficient processes are vital to attracting new investment and development.

Because the permitting process is often lengthy and leads to unnecessary delays, it is considered to be the most expensive and complex hoop that firms are forced to jump through. Therefore, streamlining the permitting process is most often the first regulatory reform effort by communities.

One former city manager, who successfully navigated permit streamlining said, “We knew that we couldn’t just sprinkle fairy dust and expect results; there had to be a complete change in attitudes and processes.” The easy part of streamlining was administrative and procedural changes; the difficult part was changing the cultures of staff and boards and commissions.

What complicates the change process is that the task of moderating development and planning in most communities falls to a broad array of local regulators, managed by municipal staffs with elected and appointed citizens’ boards and commissions.

Advice for Streamlining Your Permitting Processes

To make the changes necessary to transform the culture from “no, you can’t do that” to a customer-friendly process that says “how can we make this work” requires these three program features:

Active involvement of city council. The council must realize that improved performance requires more than just cosmetic changes. With total council support, the shift from a regulatory orientation that stresses conformity and uniformity to a customer orientation with the capacity to act and respond can be achieved.

One-stop development center. One city purchased a former grocery store shopping center across the street from city hall. After renovating the building, all departments involved in the development process were relocated, allowing for one-stop development services and permitting. The departments included Building Inspection, Code Enforcement, Engineering, Transportation, Planning, Fire Marshall, Public Works and Environmental Services.

Permit approval deadlines. To ensure a timely process, time limits such as these should be placed on the review and approval process:

  • Residential permits: Review and Approval-3 to 5 days after application.
  • Commercial permits: Review and Approval-12 or 14 days after application.

Any permit reviews and approvals that required longer than the established deadlines should be placed on the next council meeting’s agenda for discussion.

By employing these three program features, a community can embrace a culture of positive results and operational improvements and achieve the reputation of being both developer and business friendly.

Journey Awareness Persona Economic Development/Elected Official City Government