Planning Offers Predevelopment Office Hours

2/27/2013 -

Planning Offers Predevelopment Office Hours
Office hours one of several improvements made to improve and streamline the permitting process

PORTLAND, Maine – Today, the City of Portland’s Planning and Urban Development Department announced a new service, Predevelopment Office Hours. The office hours present an opportunity for developers at any stage of the process to sit down with relevant staff from Planning, Fire Prevention, Public Services, Inspections and Historic Preservation to discuss their project and get feedback on potential issues, areas of concern or gather additional information to help ensure that the planning and permitting process is efficient and beneficial. The office hours will be held on Wednesdays, noon to 1:00 PM and are available by appointment only (call Desiree Kelly (207) 874-8720 for scheduling). The office hours present developers, local businesses and residents with the unique opportunity of meeting with key staff to discuss a project and get key feedback before significant financial investments have been made in plan development. The offering of Predevelopment Office Hours is one of several recent improvements made within the department to improve access and service delivery for the public.

“These office hours are just one of many improvements underway to help both streamline and improve the delivery of key services that directly impact the city’s economic growth and quality of life,” stated City of Portland Mayor Brennan. “Whether is a simple addition or a multi-million dollar project, it is important to us that the public knows we are committed to moving you through the planning and permitting process in a way that gets you to the finish line in a reasonable amount of time with a high quality end product.”

Chris Hall, Acting CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, hailed the move. “Developers want certainty. Project costs are very substantial, and unexpected changes are burdensome. The City’s new predevelopment office hours gives business people an important new tool in the permitting process that identifies opportunities and challenges at the beginning of a project and promises a smoother, more efficient path to new jobs and investment in the City.”

Last year, Mayor Michael Brennan and City Manager Mark Rees identified the need for an exhaustive management review of the operations of the city’s Inspections Division to help identify opportunities for improvement and ways to streamline the permitting process. To that end, last spring Rees contracted with Jared Clark of Government Consulting Group who along with Director of Planning and Urban Development Jeff Levine has been carefully reviewing the process for local businesses, developers and residents to enhance the delivery of these key services at all levels and degrees of complexity.

“Improvements to the plan review process are an evolving and ongoing process,” stated Planning and Urban Development Director Levine. “Some changes may help a great deal, and others may not have as pronounced an impact. The goal is continual improvements to the process to reduce the time it takes to get permits, while at the same time delivering a high quality service, ensuring that the public health, safety and welfare are not compromised.”

In addition to the offering of Predevelopment Office Hours, several other improvements have been or will be implemented over the next few months including:
1. Implementation of electronic plan review. Eliminating the need to pass one paper copy of plans around from one reviewer to another and replacing it with the ability for different reviewers to look at the same plans simultaneously. The technological improvement is scheduled to be implemented this spring.
2. Increasing the connectivity of inspectors in the field to the office through the acquisition of network cards for their laptops, allowing inspectors to enter data and complete review processes on site.
3. Changes to the permitting software systems to make them function more efficiently and allow staff to easily gather data to benchmark for future improvements. This data will allow the department to track improvements both in quality of service and timeframe necessary for the permitting process.
4. Physical improvements to the Inspections office allowing for private consultation with staff and help facilitate a quick response to inquiries from the public.
5. New permit applications and intake processes to ensure that Inspections has all the information needed to begin review. The new applications are expected to be available to the public over the next few months.
6. Empowering staff to make judgment calls on the level of review needed for a project based on the legibility, accuracy, completeness, and code compliance of an application, as well as whether the plans are stamped by a registered professional. Applications that are more complete will be reviewed more quickly than ones that require additional information.
7. Changes to the way the phone systems are managed to improve the responsiveness to phone inquiries.
8. Longer term improvements recommended include improved web-based access for applicants, including the possibility of filing applications electronically and ability to check on the status of permits as well as the creation of how to guides for various commonly sought permits.

These changes are the result of a cooperative effort between various departments and divisions including Planning, Inspections, Public Services, Historic Preservation, Information Technology, and Fire Prevention and take advantage of new technology and creative ways to deliver services.

In concert with the independent management review, last fall, the city retained a team from the Muskie School of Public Service to conduct a comparative study of Portland’s permitting process. The Muskie School team is examining comparable communities in New England to determine what Portland does well and opportunities for improvement in the delivery of these services. The study is expected to be complete next month.