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Florida Atlantic University
Excerpt from: Development Strategy in the South Dade U.S. 1 Corridor

Speeding up the Permitting Process

At the request of the Florida Department of Community Affairs the Joint Center for Environmental and Urban Problems at Florida Atlantic University in August of 1996 published a study entitled: Planning Tools, Preparing to Implement the Comprehensive Corridor Development Strategy in the South Dade U.S. 1 Corridor.

Though the study focused on south Dade, there was some excellent discussion on the problems associated with Dade County's building permit process. Here are some excerpts:

Chapter 7. Streamlining the Development Process in South Dade

7.1. Background

Task 9 of the South Dade Project Phase II, "Prepare Amendments to LDRs Needed to Streamline Development Approval Process," focused on amending land development regulations (LDRs) as a means to promote the streamlining of the development approval process. The corridor/urban center ordinances are the vehicle the Joint Center and the South Dade Planning and Design Work Group have proposed to promote development within the study area. The ordinances will amend Dade County's LDRs for development within the corridor and will thereby provide a degree of streamlining of the development approval process. The ordinances will include explicit design guidelines. If followed, these guidelines will provide the developer with certainty and make the development permitting process go more quickly If the developer wishes to deviate from these guidelines, then the permitting process will take longer. The ordinances will give the developer a good idea of what is acceptable and expected within the corridor.

Basically, if there is a predictable process for certain types of development, it will increase the developers' certainty, reduce delays, and decrease the financial risks. Therefore, the two corridor zoning ordinances will be the primary way that the South Dade U.S.1 corridor project will streamline the development approval process within the corridor for the types of development the Work Group wants to promote. The design features desired in the study area will emphasize higher density, mixed-use development in a pedestrian/mass transit friendly environment.

This section of the report will look primarily at streamlining the development approval process itself, especially its administrative procedures. The Metro-Dade County Manager's Task Force on Construction Regulations has already issued a final report on this issue. Its focus is more on interdepartmental coordination than on the plan processing aspects that are of more concern to this corridor study Therefore, the Joint Center's task overlaps with the County Manager's effort, but does not duplicate it. The Joint Center's focus is not on streamlining the county's development permitting process in general, but on how the development permitting process could be improved within the U.S. 1 corridor as an incentive to attract developers to the area.

7.2. Difficulties of Streamlining the Development Permitting Process

The main question that arises when discussing streamlining the development approval process is how to reduce the planning staff's discretion while maintaining flexibility for creative development projects. On the one hand, ordinances promoting streamlining have to be designed to reduce discretion, because discretion can produce delays and uncertainty of approval. On the other hand, reducing discretion could lead to reduced flexibility and less creative designs by developers.

In general, developers want two things:

1. Certainty. They want to know what to expect. They want to know for sure that, if they follow certain guidelines, they will get approval.

2. Efficiency. They want the process to move quickly. Delays increase developers' carrying costs and financial risks (DeGrove 1996).

According to Reinaldo Villar, assistant director for the Zoning and Permitting Division, Metro-Dade County, the main complaints heard from developers about the county's development permitting process is that there is too much nitpicking of small things, too much detail required, and it simply takes too long to get a permit.

The Corridor Zoning Ordinances are taking an approach that will increase certainty for the developer by decreasing the amount of discretion left to the reviewers. As part of the review criteria, checklists will be included in the ordinances. The checklists will contain features of developments requiring review for consistency with the ordinances and with planning policies contained in the CDMP The checklists will provide guidance for planning and permit reviewers. They will also add consistency to the review process because all reviewers will follow the same checklist for projects within the corridor.

7.3. Metro-Dade County Permitting Process

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to comment on or recommend changes to the organizational structure of the Metro-Dade Planning, Development and Regulation Department. The permitting process within a large, metropolitan county is necessarily complex. There are several types of processes and each process involves several steps. These processes were laid out in the 1989 Guide to the Building Permit Process for the unincorporated Areas of Metro-Dade County, a booklet developed and distributed by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. It represents the latest handbook available to the public, but is considered outdated by the department. The procedural steps of the process itself have not changed greatly; however, the handbook does not explain the issues of concurrency or impact fees, or the new streamlining changes. A new handbook is being prepared. A communications expert has been hired to design brochures and pamphlets to explain the process to the public. At this time, there is a manual for owner-builders, but not for commercial or residential developers (Villar 1996).

7.3.1. The Development Permitting Process

A building permit is needed whenever repairs or renovations to any structure exceed $500. Plans for repairs or renovations totaling over $5,000 require a seal from an engineer or architect. The permitting process has been basically the same since at least 1973, except for the years immediately following Hurricane Andrew Permitting is divided into two processes: walk-throughs and drop-offs. Walk-throughs are taken weekdays between 8:00 and 11:00 a.m. Small, individual projects - such as additions to single-family houses of less than 1,000 square feet, pools, fences, satellite dishes, and interior renovations of commercial buildings - go through this process. Approximately 150 applicants are serviced through the walk-through process each morning before noon. The permitting division is divided into "pods," each of which looks at the various aspects of the project design. The pods include building and roofing, plumbing, electrical, and mechanical.

Every other type of permitting is handled through the drop-off process in the afternoons. All parts of the application review are handled on the same floor. These applications are routed by the department and handled in the order received. Less experienced processors handle residential projects. More experienced processors handle commercial projects.

This is how the process operates now, and basically how it operated until Hurricane Andrew Following Andrew the staff was divided with some processors handling only walk-throughs and others handling only drop-offs. This caused some animosity among staff, because walk-through permits are more confrontational -- and therefore more difficult -- than drop-offs. Because of the increased number of permit requests, and because the building code was continually being adjusted, permitting time increased during the post-Andrew period.

In January 1996, the original system was put back in place with some adjustments. Everyone was once more expected to handle both walk-throughs and drop-offs. At first, walk-throughs had been lasting until 4 p.m. More clerks were hired to improve crowd control and redistribute customers and applications to the right places. Also, supervisors were relieved of their duty to distribute work and were therefore able to concentrate on answering questions or reviewing applications themselves when there was a rush. The offices were also divided into smaller trade pods that could more easily monitor progress (Villar 1996).

Different departments may be required to review different projects depending on what is involved. These departments include the: Planning Division, Public Works Department, Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), Water and Sewer Department (WASD), Dade County Health Department, Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), and Fire Department. Construction must also comply with the South Florida Building Code.

7.3.2. Types of Building Permit Processes

1. Building Permits are required for all new construction and also for general maintenance and repairs over $500. There are no mandatory time limits for review building permits for single-family residences take approximately three weeks; for commercial or industrial projects approximately six weeks.

The number of building permits processed has been fairly stable throughout the years. The average annual number is approximately 5,000 single-family units and 1,500 apartments. There was a marked increase following Hurricane Andrew, but that has leveled off. Approximately 90 percent of these applications are rejected their first time through the process, but most are approved the second time through once the reviewer explains the problems with the plans. Only about 15 to 20 percent are never developed (Villar 1996).

2. Master Plan Amendments are needed to change the land use designation before a rezoning can be sought. Amendments to the master plan cannot be made more than twice per year, except under the following circumstances: a) in the case of an emergency; b) if the amendment is directly related to a proposed development of regional impact (in which case, the amendment can be considered at the same time as the application for development approval); and c) if the amendment is considered a small scale amendment (Chapter 163.3187,FS.). Dade County has two amendment cycles each year, the first in May and the second in October. The second (October) cycle in even-numbered years is an optional cycle; it is not held unless both the county manager and the county commission concur that it is necessary The urban development boundary is subject to amendment only once every two years, during the first (May) cycle in odd-numbered years.

The procedure for approving small scale amendments has been changed recently Prior to this change, small scale amendments were defined as: a residential land use of 10 acres or less with a density of 10 units per acre or Iess, or other land use categories, singularly or in combination with residential use, of 10 acres or less. In addition, the cumulative effect of small scale amendments could not exceed 60 acres per year; small scale amendments could not involve the same property more than once a year; and the proposed amendment could not involve the same property owner's property within 200 feet of property granted a change within the prior year. The Florida Department of Community Affair's (DCAs) role was to conduct an "abbreviated review" of small scale amendments and issue a notice of intent to find the amendment in compliance or not in compliance within 90 days. Small scale amendments were not subject to the statutory limits on how often they could be submitted (Chapter 163.3187,19.94 Supplement to Florida Statutes l993).

The 1995 Legislature eliminated DCAs review and compliance determination for small scale comprehensive plan amendments. It was found to be ineffective to review the numerous small scale amendments submitted each year. Compliance of small scale amendments is determined solely by local governments, subject to challenge by affected persons. The 60-acre annual threshold was increased to 100 acres in areas specified as urban infill, urban redevelopment, downtown revitalization, transportation concurrency exception areas, regional activity centers, and urban central business districts. The 10 unit per acre threshold was eliminated in existing urban service areas outside the coastal high-hazard areas (DCA 1996).

These changes reduce DCA's oversight of small scale master plan amendments. However, in order to change the land use designation before a rezoning can be granted, it is still necessary to go through the master plan amendment process.

3. Zoning variances are required when a project does not comply with the zoning code. Zoning variances must go to a public hearing before the Zoning Appeals Board or the Board of County Commissioners, except for administrative variances described below The Zoning Appeals Board has the authority to consider and act upon applications on: the minimum square footage requirements of a building; changes in zoning regulations; appeals of administrative decisions made by administrative officials or the zoning director; special exceptions, unusual, and new uses; use and non-use variances from regulations; and variances from subdivision regulations (Metro-Dade County 1996, Section 33-311). The Board of County Commissioners hears applications that involve changes to zoning and also hears appeals of Zoning Appeals Board decisions.

Zoning variances must be applied for during the first seven days of each month. Applications are submitted to the Zoning Hearing Section. The process takes approximately three months including: evaluation of the case, site visits, preparation of the recommendation, advertising to the public, and the public "hearing.

Administrative zoning variances can be given if changes are not over 50 per- cent of what is required by the code. For example, if the code calls for a 20-foot setback, then a variance for a 10-foot setback can be granted without a public hearing. Administrative variances do not require public hearings. Setback variance for structures where at least 50 percent of the required setback is provided may be approved administratively, if the applicant gets written consent for the change from abutting property owners.

Approximately 700 zoning applications are processed per year, of these about 500 are reviewed by the Zoning Appeals Board, while about 200 go directly to the County Commission for approval. Of the 500 applications that are heard by the Zoning Appeals Board, approximately 100 are appealed to the Board of County Commissioners. Most of the applications that go before the Zoning Appeals Board are setback variances (Villar 1996).

4. Site Plan Reviews are required by certain sections of the zoning code or may be triggered by public hearings or resolutions. According to the zoning code, site plan review is required for any multifamily development over four units, zero lot line developments, and commercial and industrial sites. Residential projects are submitted to the Zoning Hearing Section. Commercial and indus-trial project reviews are performed by the Zoning Processing Section. All site plan reviews are also referred to the Planning Division. The site plan review process takes approximately three to four weeks.

5. Platting is required whenever land is subdivided. A plat must be recorded prior to building permit issuance. Single-family residential subdivisions require plats, but do not require site plan reviews. Plat review is an administrative procedure. The subdivision/platting section does not have much discretion in approving or denying applications. The platting requirement can be waived for subdivisions of six or fewer units, which do not have to be recorded in the public records. Representatives for Plat Committee Reviews include: Dade County Public Schools, Fire Department (always present), DERM (when environmental assessments might be required), Planning Division, Zoning and Permitting Division, Public Works, Post Office (sometimes), Police Department (sporadically).

6. Master Model Program is used by developers of large, residential projects. Once the different master model designs are approved by each trade pod (e.g. plumbing, electrical, mechanical, etc.) approval for use on a specific site takes only about four days. The department tries to restrict the master model program to developments of over 25 units because it is time consuming to establish initially Even when master models are used, each site must be approved by the Zoning Division and DERM for road layout, water and sewer, and environmental issues. Approximately 70 to 75 percent of the single-family residential units are developed using the master model program. Of the 5,000 single-family residential units permitted each year, about 3,500 to 3,750 go through the master model program. The master model program has been considered for commercial projects, but because commercial projects may have unique features, they do not lend themselves as easily to this process (Villar 1996).

7.3.3. Complexities of the Development Permitting Process

For many reasons, the development permitting process is a complex system. The permitting process serves a variety of public purposes. For example, it protects people and property from inappropriate uses on neighboring properties; it protects the public from faulty construction; and it keeps a public record of property transactions and ownership patterns. These important functions add up to create a complex system. It is difficult to streamline the process while retaining these safeguards.

Some of the prominent features of Metro-Dade's development permitting process include:

1. There are no mandatory time limits for any of the various permitting processes.

2. Permit requests are basically handled on a first come, first served basis.

3. There is no priority given to projects based on location.

4. All permit processors handle applications from anywhere in the county at the Central Office.

The Joint Center evaluated these features in deciding what streamlining ÿtechniques could work for Metro-Dade County

7.3.4. County Manager Task Force Recommendations

The county manager established "The County Manager's Task Force on Construction Regulation" in September 1995. The 14-member Task Force consisted of builders, architects, engineers, and others familiar with the Metro- Dade County permitting process. The Zoning and Permitting Office staffed the committee, but its personnel were not members. The recommendations of The Manager's Task Force Final Report on Construction Regulation are already being implemented. The primary changes concerned how the Building Code Compliance Office interacts with the Zoning and Permitting Office. Because of the way Metro-Dade County's Code is designed, changes in procedure will require code changes.

The primary purpose of the Task Force was to make sure that all building officials within the Building Code Compliance Office were doing the same thing: ensuring that individual staff members dealt consistently with the public.

Because Code Compliance oversees Zoning and Permitting's work, conflicts can arise. Zoning and Permitting staff may become more timid (conservative) in their handling of reviews. The Task Force investigated the interaction between Code Compliance and Zoning and Permitting and whether this oversight role was necessary A change in this role would require an ordinance to change the county code.

Another problem is inconsistency in the field. Different inspectors concentrate on different things. In response to this, the Task Force recommended that the same inspector should do all inspections on the same site. There are two offices that house construction field inspectors: the north office (Hialeah) and the south office (SW 211 Street). The south office also has a small processing group that handles walk-throughs on Mondays and Wednesdays. No drop-off permitting is done at the branch offices. The Task Force also recommended that the north and south offices should be combined to increase consistency between the two with respect to development inspections.

In the Office of Zoning and Permitting, most of the task Force's recommendations are underway Some of the recommendations will require code changes before they can be implemented.

7.4. Other Streamlining Methods

The Joint Center also looked at other development approval streamlining methods that have been implemented in other communities and how they could be or are being used in Metro-Dade County The following is a brief description of these various programs.

Designate Contact Persons or Permit Expeditors for Desirable Projects

A permit expeditor "smooths the way" for the processing of desired development projects. Assigning an expeditor or contact person to a project can be an incentive used to attract the types of projects a community wants. Expeditors are usually assigned to commercial or industrial projects, but can be used for any type of development a community is trying to attract. In some older cities they may be used to encourage redevelopment and reinvestment in selected places. In cities deficient in affordable housing, they can reduce a developer's carrying costs, bringing down the cost of housing. An expeditor tracks the project through the process and can help move the application through if it stalls (Vranicar et al. 1980).

In Metro-Dade County, government projects and major commercial projects are often assigned a contact person. Basically, the assigned staff person would usher the project through the drop-off process. In this way, the project would be taken out of order (placed on top of the pile) to expedite the permitting process. The designated contact person, by ushering through projects in the U.S. 1 corridor study area, would be giving these projects priority over other projects. This would give developers an added incentive to build within the study area.

Pre-application Meetings

Pre-application meetings can reduce the likelihood of errors in permit applications and increase the flow of communication between permitters and developers. Pre-application meetings increase communication while a project is in the conceptual stage and can alert the developer to potential obstacles before the developer has committed a lot of time and money to the project. The pre-application meeting can give the developer an understanding of reasonable expectations for the project (Vranicar et al.1980).

In Metro-Dade County, pre-application meetings can be requested by developers of large projects. This option is often used by out-of state developers unfamiliar with the South Florida Building Code (Villar 1996).

For the U.S. I corridor study area, the intentions of the design guidelines in the corridor ordinances could be explained in a pre-application meeting. It would allow the community, through the design review features of the ordinances, an early opportunity for input into project design. By understanding what the community wants, the project would run into fewer problems during public hearings.

Multidepartmental Review

Oftentimes, applications must be routed to several different departments for review A multidepartmental review committee can be set up to allow joint review of a project application. In this way, each department is aware of the comments or modifications the other department have made, and there is less likelihood of an application bouncing back and forth between departments. However, a joint review committee cannot substitute for technical review by specialized staff (Vranicar et al. 1980).

Metro-Dade County does include a multidepartmental review as part of the pre-application meeting. Fire and DERM, and occasionally Public Works, are the only external reviewers needed, and they are brought in for the pre-application meeting when necessary (Villar 1996).

One-stop Permitting Process

In many communities, each individual department has its own information counter. Each department may be located in different buildings or in different locations within one building. In a "one-stop" permitting process, a central counter is set up and shared by the various permitting departments.

The walk-through process in Metro-Dade County is basically a one-stop permitting process. Every part of the drop-off process is also handled at a single location (the tenth floor of the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami), except WASD. The department is in the process of bringing WASD onto the same floor.

Set Mandatory Deadlines

Mandatory deadlines for permit application review is an important consideration. Knowing how long the process will take reduces the developer's sense of uncertainty However, setting mandatory review deadlines does not always produce the intended results. If a mandatory deadline is too generous, there is no incentive for staff to act quickly, whereas if it is too restrictive, it may not be adhered to (Vranicar et al. 1980).

Metro-Dade County does not have mandatory deadlines for the permitting process. It has estimated target deadlines for different types of projects and tries to maintain these time frames. Presently, a single-family residential subdivision takes approximately 45 days, and the commercial permit processing takes approximately 75 days. Mr. Villar stated that the commercial process is taking too long and will be improved. He does not think setting mandatory time limits would be necessary or desirable. The streamlining efforts implemented so far have already improved the processing time. Further improvement is expected as more Task Force recommendations and internal adjustments are implemented (Villar 1996).

The general consensus of the Work Group was that creating mandatory deadlines was not a desirable option. They felt that mandatory deadlines could rush reviewers into doing a poor job or encourage them to find small faults in order to send projects back to developers just to start the clock again (Work Group Meeting, 10 June 1996).

Fast Tracking or Designating a Project Size Threshold

Fast tracking separates out projects with minor impacts and abbreviates the review process for them. This method is routinely used for small subdivisions with less than a designated number of lots. The public hearing requirement can be removed for projects under the designated threshold.

In Metro-Dade County, platting requirements can be waived for subdivisions of six or fewer units. Other than this situation, a zoning code change would be required to designate a project size threshold (or certain allowable land use changes) within the corridor for which a public hearing would not be necessary This change could be written into the corridor ordinances, but it has not been considered at this time.

Zoning Code Review

Zoning codes grow more complex through many years of amendments and changes. Ideally, a zoning code should be revisited periodically to make sure it is not outdated or contradictory However, zoning code review is a huge and expensive undertakingÿ

Metro-Dade County's zoning code has not been reviewed. There are some inconsistencies in it. Some uses have been moved from one zoning category to another without consideration of how that use would coexist with other uses in the new category However, it may not be feasible for the planning department to devote the time and energy to reviewing and rewriting a city's entire zoning code. Planning directors may prefer to modify the code to promote certain types of development or to allow specific projects to be undertaken, but rarely do they have the staff or funding to revisit the entire code (Trias 1996).

Reducing the number of and broadening the definitions of zoning categories are other considerations that can be undertaken during a zoning code review There are some theoretical questions about the need for such specific zoning categories. The reasons for a large number of different subcategories for residential, including single-family and multifamily commercial, and industrial zones may be suspect. However, from a more practical point of view not only would this proposal require a major rewriting of the zoning code, but it would be very unpopular with a large portion of the public. Although it may have value in a small, young community, it is not a realistic option for a largely built up, metropolitan area the size of Metro-Dade County

7.5. Streamlining Possibilities within the Corridor

The best way to improve the development permitting process within the South Dade U.S. 1 corridor is to designate a contact person to expedite the permitting process for suitable projects within the study area. This proposal will cause the least disruption to the present permitting process and will not require code - changes to implement. It will also encourage developers to propose and construct desirable projects within the study area, which is one of the Work Group's primary goals.

According to Mr. Villar, a contact person could be set up for projects within the corridor. At the present time, government projects and major commercial projects are often assigned a contact person. Basically, the assigned staff person would "walk-through" a drop-off project. In this way, the project would be taken out of order (placed on top of the pile) to expedite the permitting process.

A public hearing would still be needed for every new zoning change implemented within the corridor. A zoning hearing is an expensive ($7,000-8,000) and time-consuming (three months) process. As an incentive, the Board of County Commissioners could instruct the department to use a "director's application" to file rezonings within the corridor itself and save the developer fees and some time. A director's application is submitted by the director of the Planning, Development and Regulation Department on behalf of the developer, and therefore the fee can be waived.

It is also possible for the permitting section to notify the Joint Center when a permit is applied for within the study area, for the duration of Phase III (until December 1997). This would allow the Joint Center and the South Dade Planning and Design Work Group to work with the applicant early enough in the design process to effect desired changes before too much time or money had been invested in the project (Villar 1996). After the conclusion of Phase III, a new organization, such as an ongoing South Dade Planning and Design Work Group, local community councils, or neighborhood associations, could be chosen to fulfill this role.

7.6. Conclusion

A primary method for streamlining the development approval process within the study area will derive from the corridor ordinances. These ordinances will give direction for the type of development that will meet with easier approval. " Also, having a single contact person, who is familiar with the corridor and with the corridor ordinances, assigned to all projects within the study area could be an important feature in attracting developers to work in the study area. Besides these two approaches, the county has already completed a streamlining study Some of the recommendations of this study are in use. Others may be implemented soon.