Wednesday, August 5, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

City staff fixes plan review backlog, looks ahead

When it comes to planning and development, city staff has a lot on its plate in the foreseeable future. It no longer has to worry, though, about a plan review backlog that began to pile up earlier this year.

Development Services Department Acting Director J. Rodney Gonzales made the announcement at a City Council work session Tuesday. He was joined by Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey and Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards for a briefing on city staff’s “action plan” to fix issues with the city’s development review and permitting process.

“The backlog has been completely eliminated in our department for commercial review, residential review and land-use site plan review,” Gonzales said, adding that staff worked nights and weekends to accomplish the task. “That is a huge starting point for beginning the action plan, especially when we monitor the goals, so that way we have a good base to start from.”

The plan lays out incremental goals for Development Services to reach over the next two years that are intended to reduce wait times for applicants, ensure quality reviews, improve customer service, update technology, foster interdepartmental coordination and invest in employees.

Specific goals include reducing site and subdivision application intake from seven to two days, increasing the percentage of on-time site and subdivision plan reviews from 60 to 90 percent and increasing the answer rate for incoming calls from 47 to 75 percent, and eventually to 100 percent.

Customer survey goals include ensuring that codes and policies are applied in a fair and practical manner, making sure that customers understand the development review process and ensuring that review services are completed on the date promised.

Staff from the two departments developed the plan in response to a critical report by consultant Zucker Systems that city management first released in March. The document includes 462 recommendations to improve what was the Planning and Development Review Department, before City Manager Marc Ott split it into the two current departments that same month.

Gonzales explained that staff hopes to engage with Zucker Systems for another analysis, this time of the interrelationships between city departments that pertain to planning and development. “We’re intending to streamline our processes that we have amongst our departments,” he said. “That way our customers understand, and they have a streamlined process as well.”

Council, Gonzales said, will see a request from staff on Aug. 20 to enter into another contract with Zucker Systems.

The proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget includes funding to add 27 new Development Services positions to the tune of $2.8 million, though that funding won’t take effect until Oct. 1.

Edwards stressed the role of the proposed staff and the timeline of the plan. “This is a two-year process,” she said.

“The hiring process will take us a while, and I know that the public already has this great anticipation that we are going to improve absolutely immediately,” Edwards continued. “I want to lay out there that we are going to do everything within the time frame that we have said we have, but I think it’s going to be an incremental change in some areas.”

Mayor Steve Adler said that he considers resolution of the city’s planning and development woes to be a high priority. “It’s my intent to put this on the work session agenda every week now until we can agree on what the goals are, what the objectives (are), how we’re going to measure them and over what period of time we would expect those things to happen,” he said.

“From where I’m sitting, whether you adopt all of the Zucker recommendations or none of the Zucker recommendations – I don’t care,” Adler said to staff. “Ultimately that’s a call I think that you make and the (city) manager makes. What I’m real concerned about are what the results are at the end.”

The Development Services side of the plan includes requiring employees to return phone calls within 24 hours and using overtime and contract employees to reduce wait times by October, expanding online payment and implementing an online permitting process to phase out the need to fax permits by January, and implementing electronic plan review by September 2016.

The Planning and Zoning side of the plan includes creating a weighted matrix to prioritize Imagine Austin planning areas; updating the city’s zoning manual and creating new zoning manuals for annexation, historic preservation and code areas in January; and mapping the new Land Development Code that will result from the CodeNEXT rewrite in September 2016.

Council Member Don Zimmerman raised doubts about the benefits of CodeNEXT, arguing that the code includes too many restrictions. “I have pretty much zero confidence that CodeNEXT is going to solve the problem, because when you have mutually exclusive constraints, you can’t solve them by redoing the paperwork,” he said.

“How are we going to fix the impervious cover, heritage trees, visibility?” Zimmerman continued. “I’ve got all these constraints on me – I can’t go to CodeNEXT and magically make mutually exclusive choices work together.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo defended some of the code amendments that Council has made in the past. “Some of those are really critical,” she said, citing wheelchair accessibility requirements and the single-family compatibility standards as examples.

“I think there are inconsistencies in the code, I think there are complexities,” Tovo continued. “I understand that’s the consultant’s job to work on eliminating those, but certainly it’s my expectation – and I think the community’s as well – that some of those really important provisions in the code are going to remain even after CodeNEXT.”

Photo by Tom Ventura from Denver, CO, USA (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Development Services Department: A city department that reviews development and inspection services.

Planning and Zoning Department: Planning, preservation and design services are under the purview of this department.

Zucker Report: The final analysis of the Planning and Development Review was released in May 2015. In it were numerous suggestions for the improvement of the city's planning and permitting operations, and the release of the report sparked quick changes, and led to the direct dissolution of the department into two separate departments: Planning and Zoning and Development Services.

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