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Business Observer Friday, May 20, 2011 10 years ago

Clear and Concise

Orange County has a new mayor and a new attitude toward working with the development community. A task force created by the mayor will attempt to make the development review process more efficient and less costly.
by: Dan Ping Editor/Central Florida

Issue. Development regulations
Industry. Construction
Key. A streamlined regulatory process will help will speed up construction projects in Orange County.

Bill Tomala is an expert at navigating the knotty labyrinth of committees, review procedures and regulations that must be passed in order to build in Orange County.

Tomala is in charge of government relations, due diligence and permits for Cuhaci & Peterson Architects in Orlando, and he's responsible for guiding his firm's projects through the permitting process.

“It can be a frustrating journey,” says Tomala.

Tomala will soon have the opportunity to make changes to the development review process thanks to a new task force created by Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs.

The Regulatory Streamlining Task Force is a top-to-bottom review of the development regulatory process with a threefold mission: eliminate duplicative regulations, reduce processing times and improve customer service.

Jacobs and her colleagues on the Orange County Board of County Commissioners have appointed a 15-member board comprised of industry stakeholders that includes architects, builders and engineers. The task force is expected to be in place for about 18 months, though it could recommend some changes in as little as six months.

Process will 'blow your mind'
Jacobs, who took office in January, says the idea for the task force was driven by the slow economy and the need to create jobs.

Jacobs says she has not seen other counties put together similar task forces. However, she did serve on the Orange County Commission for eight years and knew from her experience that the process is daunting.

“Looking at the flow chart (on how developers navigate the regulatory process) will blow your mind,” says Jacobs. “The frustration of not being able to navigate the system in a clear and concise manner is a problem.”

Tomala says those frustrations include reviews by different departments on the same aspect of a project, for instance how the project will handle the site's stormwater. Not only is it time consuming and repetitive, sometimes different departments make conflicting rulings on the same item.

Randi Fitzgerald, chairwoman of the task force, says multiple reviews by the same committee is also an issue.

“Sometimes a project ends up in front of the Development Review Committee three or four times,” says Fitzgerald, a partner and land use attorney with Orlando-based Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed. “On that third or fourth time through, some of the changes are things that should have been made by staff on the first review. That makes people very frustrated.”

Tomala says another frustration occurs when staff members use a literal interpretation of the code books, as opposed to a common-sense approach. Tomala recently had a restaurant client whose building included an outdoor patio covered by a canopy. The restaurant used the patio to seat customers.

When the owner wanted to enclose the existing space, county officials treated the project as if it were a new expansion of the property and indicated the impact fees would approach $200,000.

“The fact of the matter is that my client is not adding any more space, they just want to enclose the space they have,” says Tomala. “The project is not worth 25% of the ($200,000) impact fees the county wanted to charge.”

Government should not be a risk
Fitzgerald says it is important to streamline the regulatory process now while development is still slow in Orange County. First, it will allow changes to be made within the system without as much disruption. Second, a streamlined process will help Orange County add private sector jobs quicker.

“If you want to make an investment that will generate jobs, the quicker you can get developers to the finish line the better,” says Fitzgerald.

Jacobs says it's also important to develop a process that is predictable so developers can determine if a project is feasible. “There are plenty of inherent risks in the development business,” she says. “Government shouldn't be a part of that risk.”

In creating the task force, Jacobs developed a list of industry sectors she wanted represented on the board. She then asked each of the six county commissioners to choose two task force members who fit in one of the categories. Jacobs filled the remaining three slots. Jacobs says this helped ensure those who use the system would get involved, and it also promotes buy-in of the new process.

Jacobs says the task force is not a way to let developers circumvent regulations, but rather a way to make the process more business-friendly while maintaining the proper checks and balances.

“We're not trying to be unrealistic,” says Tomala, who spent time early in his career in the Orange County Building Department. “I've worked both sides of the coin. I want to come up with improvements that work for the public and private sector.”

It's still early in the process, so Jacobs and task force members have yet to set specific goals they want to accomplish, but Jacobs says the overall goal is clear: “The end game is to come up with a refined process that is less costly, less time consuming and more predictable,” says Jacobs.

Tomala acknowledges that Orange County has been working to improve its regulatory process. It used to take 21 days for the county to review project plans, now it takes seven. He adds that communication is getting better between county staff and private developers. “This is a big step, acknowledging that they need to make changes,” says Tomala.

In addition, Jacobs recently unveiled the county's new One Stop Permitting Services Office, which will allow developers to pay for and obtain all of their permits in one office. Previously, developers had to travel to three or four offices to receive the permits.

“It was so time consuming,” says Nate Groover, real estate and public affairs representative for Clear Channel Outdoor, and a member of the task force. “Sometimes you go to one office only to be told you had to first go somewhere else.”

Fitzgerald is confident the county commission will implement recommendations made by the task force, citing the decision to create the task force and the One Stop Permitting Office as proof that the county is ready to change.

Besides, she says she would not have agreed to chair the task force if she didn't believe the group would not be taken seriously: “I'm not into tilting at windmills,” she says.

The process

The Regulatory Streamlining Task Force met for the first time April 28 and adopted an outline for how it will go about its work:

• After deciding how it will get public comments, the task force will split into three committees, each focusing on one of three areas: total review process, which includes comprehensive plan amendments, rezonings and concurrency reviews; permitting and inspection; and infill and redevelopment.

• Each subcommittee will review existing processes, compare them to other counties and gather public and stakeholder input.

• County staff will then categorize each issue into one of five categories: a process issue, a code change, customer service improvement, an education/information opportunity or miscellaneous issue. The subcommittees will prioritize the issues and create a timetable for making changes.

• Finally, each subcommittee will report its recommendations to the task force, complete with a priorities list, specifics on implementation and a timeline to guide the change.

• The task force will consolidate the recommendations and prepare a final timeline to present to the Orange County Commission for approval and adoption.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs says the entire process will take about 18 months to complete.

“That's not to say there won't be some immediate changes,” Jacobs says. “I would expect to see some changes on the low-hanging fruit brought to the commission in three to six months.”

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