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Council to consider study of expedited development permit process

Wednesday, August 7, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Skepticism emerged Tuesday over a plan by Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole to establish an opt-in, pay-extra expedited permit process for select projects in the City of Austin. Two major issues stood out: Whether a study that could kick off such a program would be timed to work in concert with a broader examination of the city’s Planning and Development Review Department currently in the planning stages, and what might happen to economy class permit-seekers already in line for construction.


Cole’s resolution would be just the first step in a wider discussion of the idea. If approved, it would instruct City Manager Marc Ott to consider other expedited permitting programs around the United States, and consider whether such a program might fit here.


As has been widely reported, the city’s Planning and Development Review Department suffered under a recent backlog of permit applications. Though temporary fixes have reportedly cleared the issue, management has contracted with consulting firm KPMG to design a request for proposals designed to bring in a firm to examine the current state of the department.


Cole’s plan would be another approach. She told her colleagues at Tuesday’s Council work session that the resolution is “designed to let people pay for expedited review.” She noted that “the idea is that some people pay more and you have more resources available for everyone else.”


In the resolution, Cole cites expedited permitting programs in four other cities. She noted that Dallas “allows small or large project applicants to pay for an accelerated or expedited plan review that includes…fees”; that San Antonio “provides customer consultations on the plan review and submittal process and performs expedited plan review services, such as ‘walkthroughs’ and ‘10-Day Review,’ for projects that fall within a prescribed set of criteria for an additional fee; that El Paso “offers fast-track plan review alternatives”; and that San Jose offers “an optional, fee-based service offered to select small project applicants that meet specific eligibility requirements” for expedited permitting.


Cole suggests that the fees could be used to hire additional PDR employees – a move that would presumably help with what has become an increasingly heavy workload.


Still, Cole ran into no small amount of concern. Council Member Kathie Tovo wondered whether applicants who sought an expedited process would “go to the head of the line if they pay the expedited charges.”


Cole responded that this was not necessarily her intent. “They wouldn’t necessarily go to the head of the line,” she said. Cole then pivoted. “They would pay more money – a lot more money, depending on what staff finds out – we don’t really know how it’s going to work, this is charging staff to figure (that) out.


“The idea,” she continued, “is not for the average homeowner seeking another bedroom to all the sudden have to wait more time, it’s actually the opposite.”


Council Member Laura Morrison was also worried – at least provisionally. “What I took away from this when I read it was that this was going to develop a program so that someone could pay for superior service from the city – which feels wrong,” she said. “I’m hearing you say that’s not what was intended, and so I don’t know if it might make sense to try and change some of the language.”


Cole conceded to a change in the date that for staff to report back from December 12, 2013 to March 1, 2014. She also agreed to work in language, proposed by Morrison — that would blend staff’s current PDR review in with Cole’s proposal.


Council is set to vote on the expedited permitting study on Thursday.

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