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If you want to dig into the realities of land development, you’ve come to the right place.

Working with the Planning Department

Working with the Planning Department

Planning Department Tips

Even folks that are new to land development realize that their plat or short plat application will need to be reviewed by the county or city planning department. In my county this department is called Planning and Development Services (PDS). The goal of today is to review some of the ways to work most efficiently with your planning department and how to avoid problems.

Pre-application meeting:

I always schedule a pre-app meeting with PDS. This is essential since it avoids a key frustration of every planning department – the idiot who didn’t take something into account as part of the application and now they have to come back at you for it. The developer’s engineer and key consultants should be present. This key step can ensure that the formal application, when submitted, is thorough and complete.

Your engineer will know the key concerns of the project from a review standpoint. He/she will tell you who should be asked to attend from other departments or agencies that have a vested interest. Try to get the staff from these departments together at the pre-app meeting if possible.  

An example would be a project I had one time that had a key traffic intersection in a small city nearby. I knew to have the Public Works representative at the meeting, and she wound up requiring a traffic study involving the intersection. Although it was frustrating, doing the traffic study actually saved time since everything each agency required was already there when the application was submitted.

Back to the drawing board:

Based on the pre-app meeting you may have to go back to the drawing board - a place I have been a time or two. Just like in the traffic study requirement already described, the reviewing agencies will sometimes require additional studies and/or information based on county/city code. This can certainly stall things out as you go back to work on it, but what’s the choice?

Maybe there is one choice after all - Can design revisions be made to avoid additional expenses in time and money to legally avoid a requirement?

Assignment:

My PDS assigns a lead planner to the application once it has been submitted. If you’ve been around for a while, you might know that person yourself. Even if you don’t, your civil engineer probably does from past projects. Civil engineers are not only adept at the engineering part, good ones also cultivate key relationships with county staff. Hopefully your engineer and lead planner are comfortable with each other.

The rule in my PDS department is supposed to be that whichever planner is next for assignment on a new project gets it. In reality they take into account the type of application and assess the past experience of the planner as additional factors. Sometimes you get someone other than “next in line”.

I have had both brand new and super experienced planners assigned to my projects. I have never found one that in my opinion was incapable (like some developers have stories about), but I have had some that needed a lot of extra attention and some who were real sticklers.

No matter, you’re pretty much stuck with each other unless your engineer can drop a hint up-front with the department head that causes a certain preferred planner to be assigned.

Avoid this:

I do know developers that are “too busy” for whatever reason and have their consultant team attend the pre-app by themselves. I don’t do this and will reschedule instead if I have to. No one, including your team, has the vested interest that you do so always attend key meetings.

A word on personalities:

I figure everyone brings all of themselves to work every day, both their professional and personal sides. In American business it is the norm that business principals rule over personalities, but I think one is foolish to think that personalities do not enter into the equation. They just do.

Therefore, I try to cultivate my planner to establish trust and I am not talking about butt kissing here. I am talking about carefully listening to fully understand what their preferences and tendencies are, then craft responses and future actions that take this into account.

It’s about rule following:

Personalities aside, land development is about rule following – step-by-step. There can be shortcuts, but only if they comply with Code or are ruled in your favor by the Hearing Examiner. Getting creative is great and I have many examples where I have used creativity in my career, but this has only worked for me when following and working within the established rules. Good luck to the guy that’s gonna show them a “new way”.

A new way:

I had an investor that was super creative and had become quite wealthy in a separate business by being that way. He was a self-made man and retired at 50. For kicks and something to do he bought up several thousand acres in the county, all on his own and with no prior experience. To make a long story short, he thought he could accelerate plat approvals by dedicating a good portion of the land in each project for local schools and county parks. Free land for the good of the public!

It didn’t work because the county planning department didn’t really care about “extras” for the Parks and Recreation Department or the school district. Plus, there were already measures in effect to capture money from developers in the form of mitigation fees, i.e. assessments due as a part of the plat approval.

He could never quite come to terms with why no one cared, and of course we had to finish the projects in the traditional way. He was a tough bird however, and he prospered in raw land going forward.

Delays:

I always like the developer that complains about how long it takes for review and approval when they are a big part of the reason for the delay. I knew a guy who always complained like that.

Truthfully, he was very disorganized and led his team that way. I remember two preliminary plat approval hearings spaced about 3 months apart. He was up in front of the Hearing Examiner before me both times, so I listened while I was waiting my turn.

The Hearing Examiner had directed him at the first meeting to revise something in the storm water design (I forget what), but he showed up once again with a revision that did not comply. Worse, he had also overruled his engineer on the revision. Well, back to the drawing board…

That’s how you lose 3 months or more of time in a project. It would have been clearly better to listen to the engineer who knew better in the first place.

I always say - “being the leader doesn’t make you one”. Lead your team for accuracy and efficiency and don’t forget to listen to your own experts.

With experience:

You eventually find your stride while traveling down the long road in land development. First-hand experience with the planning department will bring needed insight as to how to work efficiently with them. Efficiency is a key and I won’t move my team forward until we are organized and 100% accurate. It’s a good way to not look stupid.

Planners are human and their emotions really do enter into their interactions with a given developer. Make no mistake about it – land developers don’t just develop dirt, they also develop personal reputations along the way with county staff. I try really hard to make sure that mine is a positive one and so should you. Good luck and go get ‘em!

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