A new report shows just how long it sometimes takes for new development to be approved in Montgomery County and calls for more County Council oversight of the process.
The Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight delivered the report on Wednesday. It looked at 415 preliminary and site plan applications completed between FY 2010 and mid-year FY 2014, plus 284 record plats approved by the Planning Board and Department of Permitting Services from 2011-2013.
It found great variability in the time it took to get those projects approved — so much variability that it decided to use median approval timeframes instead of the average.
The OLO found median review and approval timeframes of about 15 months for a preliminary plan, 12 months for the site plan a little more than nine months for a record plat.
If a project requires all three levels of review, that means it could take three years to get from initial proposal of a project to final approval.
The OLO also found “actual processing time data for new preliminary and site plans phases exceeds various processing time assumptions identified in County law, the Planning Board’s procedural rules,” and memorandums of understanding with county agencies involved in the approval process.
In the official language of the report, the Council requested the study “for a better understanding of how long it takes to receive certain types of approvals and some of the factors that influence the predictability of the County’s regulatory land use processes.”
Though it’s rarely made public or explicit, developers and those in the industry have long expressed frustration over the length of time it takes to get projects approved by both the Planning Board and the county’s Department of Permitting Services.
The OLO report also includes a look at how other jurisdictions deal with development approvals, though it stops short of recommending a more rigid structure for each level of review.
It’s not the first time the county has grappled with the issue. There have been many reviews of the process, enhanced communication between the Planning Board and Department of Permitting Services and the county has implemented new online programs to allow for key applications.
But the OLO found the process particularly stalled because of something called the Development Review Committee, an inter-agency task force comprised of representatives from public agencies and utilities such as WSSC, PEPCO, the State Highway Administration, and the county Departments of Permitting Services, Environmental Protection, and Public Works and Transportation.
According to the Planning Department, DRC members discuss a development proposal with planning staff at a regularly scheduled meeting — not more than three weeks after the application is filed. Each agency provides comments and revisions they’d like to see in the proposal before it goes to the Planning Board.
Only 27 percent of site plans (which are the final, most detailed plan in the process) completed the post-DRC phase in 90 days or less and only 42 percent completed it in 120 days or less, OLO found. Preliminary plans found even less success — only 8 percent completed this phase of the process in 90 days or less and 12 percent in 120 days or less.
Montgomery County Chief Administrative Officer Tim Firestine responded to the OLO report by pointing out the county’s Department of Permitting Services has created new metrics for processing stormwater management plans, record plats and other applications.
The county has also delegated the director of DPS signature authority on all development documents to avoid “steps in process and movement of documents between departments in the County.”
But members of the development industry told the OLO other jurisdictions have more stringent timeframes that provide greater certainty and predictability, while addressing all regulatory guidelines.
They also said development review is often longer than it should be “because County agencies are wary of making a ‘wrong’ decision.”
Industry representatives told the OLO they feel that’s been a problem particularly since certain development proposals in Clarksburg.
“…county agencies are hesitant to make decisions if a set precedent does not exist and/or make changes to existing practices even if a particular issue does not apply to the specific development plan under review,” reads the OLO report. “This factor lengthens review times, particularly when an issues crosses into the decision-making authority of multiple departments or agencies.”
The OLO recommended creating pre-set development approval timeframes and targets for each step of the process, establishing a data system that reports “accurate agency and applicant review times” and having agency and industry representatives meet with the Council’s Planning Committee every six months.