Ten Steps to Master in the Land Development Process
This multi-part Blog series will highlight how to mitigate risk and avoid issues that commonly plague land development design projects. We will help you understand how to properly navigate the main phases of the land development design process to help prevent cost overruns and delays (and a whole lot of stress and anxiety). This is a collection of observations, recommendations, and advice from the perspective of a civil engineer who has worked side-by-side with a diverse set of developers on hundreds of land development projects over the past 25 years.
If you are a real estate developer, broker, or land use attorney you will find the series to be of particular interest.
Topic 6: Local Approvals for Land Development Projects
In my last blog we talked about some best practices that developers should consider in the design phase of a land development project. Now that we covered that issue, we turn our attention to the permitting/entitlement phase of the project. Project permitting is really broken into two distinct categories: local approvals and outside agency approvals. Local approvals consist of gaining use and development permits from the city/town/municipality where the project is located. Outside agency approvals involve gaining permits/approvals from regional/state agencies such as DOT, Conservation District, DEP, utility authorities, etc. In general, local permitting involves public meetings/hearings and can involve more politics and public interaction, while outside agency permitting is typically more administrative in nature. In this post, I want to highlight some best practices and considerations for local permitting from my experience.
1. Town Engagement
- When? Gaining town approvals obviously requires engagement and communication with the town. But at what point does this happen? Of course, it depends. Typically, early, informal meetings with the appropriate township officials and/or staff are recommended. Such meetings are great ways to identify potential local issues, gain knowledge of local “hot button” issues, confirm timing/process, and to get a general sense of support (or not) of the project. Be aware that most jurisdictions/states have laws that place certain limits on non-public meetings, so it is always wise to consult your land use attorney when deciding on your engagement strategy. One word of caution to early interaction is confidentiality. In the early phases of a project, before formal applications are made, it is often in the developer’s best interest to keep the project confidential. Meeting with town officials sometimes result in projects being “leaked” to the public which often leads to the spread of partial information and misunderstandings that can be magnified by social media and put the developer on the defensive before permitting has even begun.
- Who? OK, so you have decided to talk to the town prior to your formal submission. Who do you engage with? Before making this decision, be sure to understand who actually has voting/approval authority. This depends on the structure and politics of the town. It is also important to meet with staff members such as the Town Manager and/or Township Engineer since these individuals typically have a strong understanding of local requirements, process, etc and can impart valuable information. As noted previously, be aware of the restrictions on non-public meetings in your jurisdiction and seek the advice of a local land use attorney.
2. Community Engagement
Community engagement can be a double-edged sword as most developers have experienced. Ideally, a developer would proactively meet with surrounding property owners and community stakeholders to build consensus and genuinely listen to and address their concerns. However, this needs to be done in a prepared way at the right time. Social media can be used to proactively inform the community in the right circumstances; however, it can also backfire by promoting the spread of misinformation and solidifying community opposition. Community engagement is an important part of a development project and one that must be undertaken thoughtfully. PR firms that specialize in such communications and campaigns should be considered.
3. Public Meetings
Be prepared! This is the #1 Recommendation I can offer to any developer. The key piece of local permitting is the public meeting. This is the forum in which you and your team present the project to the local body responsible for approving your project. I have witnessed countless projects go down in flames at public meetings simply due to the lack of preparation and anticipation by the project team. Much can be written on this topic, but below are some of the recommended actions and considerations in this regard:
- Know who your audience will be. Tailor your presentation accordingly. Avoid the use of industry lingo and technical specifications where possible.
- Anticipate the issues. Put yourself in neighbors’ or town’s position. What would YOUR issues be if YOU lived next door? Have good answers accordingly. (Note: This analysis should have already been done before you even did your design.)
- Be brief and to the point. Less is more – especially when things are going well. Be prepared to do a deep dive on any topic, but only do that when needed/asked.
- Bring good visuals. This can make all the difference. You may spend your days looking at development plans, but most people don’t – give them clear, colored visuals.
- Be respectful. You are in their community.
- Practice. Have your team assemble and do a dry run of the presentation and have someone play the role of board member or neighboring property owner asking the tough questions. At LANDCORE, we do this internally as a staff-development exercise on a regular basis and it always yields good insights.
- Have the right team members in attendance. For instance, if you are seeking approvals for a retail project, you should have tenant representatives at the meeting to handle specific operation questions that other team members may not know. If you anticipate traffic concern, then you better have your traffic engineer there armed with facts and figures.
There is a lot more to this topic, and its importance in the permitting process can’t be overstated. If you are developer with limited time to insert yourself in the permitting process, pick public meeting prep as the point in which to spend your time.
4. Review Letters/Comments
Assess the letter – The town will undoubtedly have consultants (or in-house professionals) that are tasked with reviewing your development plans/application and will issue letters with their comments. When you get these review letters, take the time to dive in and categorize the comments. Typically, the comments will fall into a few categories:
- Informational comments – these can take up a surprising amount of the letter but require no action/response.
- Technical/Design comments – these can range from minor drafting items to more major comments that call into question major design elements. You need to have your design professionals review and advise you on such comments (and if they are the result of errors by your consultants, then they should be remedied at no charge to you….).
- Zoning/Ordinance Compliance comments – these can be troublesome. If they call out non-compliant aspects of the design/layout/use that were not anticipated (and can’t be easily remedied), then these can lead to additional permitting, time delays, costs, and possibly risk the viability of obtaining permits. Typically, you want to involve your Land Use Attorney in assessing such comments.
- Preference comments – these are comments that the reviewer makes that aren’t based on any rules/ordinance requirements, but rather their personal preferences. It’s important to identify these comments since push-back is often warranted. For example, the Township Engineer may include a comment stating that “all storm piping shall be reinforced concrete”, when there is no such requirement written in the town standards. While it is easy to change the plan spec and comply accordingly, this can result in a huge increase to the sitework costs and should not be agreed to.
Determine next steps – When review letters are received and assessed, you have to make a decision about how to proceed (i.e., do you go to the upcoming meeting or do you resubmit, get cleaner letters and then go to the next public meeting?). That decision is based largely on the nature of the comments and the disposition of the town. Often, if you have review letters that contain substantial comments, you are better off revising your plans, resubmitting, getting cleaner review letters and then attending the public meeting – doing so results in a cleaner process, less questions/testimony and provides a better chance of gaining your approval vote that evening. There is little to be gained by paying all of your professionals to go to a meeting only to be told to come back when more of the issues have been resolved.
It is also often a good idea to for your consultants to meet informally with the reviewing professionals to hash out items in the letter before making revisions and resubmissions. This can go a long way to saving time and money.
5. Limit Revisions
As a developer, you want to avoid “death by a thousand cuts” that can come by way of the costs and time delays that many rounds of revisions and resubmissions can result in. Some degree of this is unavoidable, but if managed properly, it can be kept to a minimum. For instance, some towns can have as many as five or six different reviewing consultants (civil engineer, landscape architect, traffic engineer, historical consultant, environmental engineer, architect, lighting consultant, sound expert, etc.). These letters, along with any reviews from outside agencies, will trickle in over the span of a month or so. Rather than jumping to address each one as they come in, make sure you get all letters and do one assessment and revision round to address all letters. Also, as noted above, if there are unclear or contentious comments, be sure to clarify via meetings or discussions with the reviewer rather than making assumptions and resubmitting. Keep in mind that all of these reviewing professionals are typically paid out of the developer’s review escrow account (yes, YOU the developer are paying their bills!) so dealing with review letters efficiently and limiting the amount of revisions and submissions can make a substantial impact on your soft cost spend.
There are many more important items for a developer to consider during the local permitting phase of a project but getting the above steps right will go a long way to getting to the finish line in this regard. Stay tuned for our next blog where we will dive into best practices for outside agency permitting.
The above article is the sixth in our series of “10 Steps to Master in the Land Development Process”. Previous articles are linked below. Subscribe to the Blog to be notified of future articles in the series.
LANDCORE’s staff have been through thousands of projects – reach out to us to leverage our knowledge on your next deal.
To take advantage of LANDCORE’s free consultation click here or reach out to me at email@example.com or call me at 215-836-2510 x1. I look forward to the conversation.