NCCo may streamline development OKs
Dropping step wouldn't result in lax compliance, officials say
By ANGIE BASIOUNY, The News Journal
Posted Monday, March 5, 2007
New Castle County officials want to reduce the number of steps needed for a developer to get a big building project from the drawing board to reality.
The county now has three stages in the land-use process and wants to consolidate to two.
Officials said the change would not mean a loosening of requirements. Each project still would have to be 100 percent compliant with the county's code of laws regulating land use.
But bypassing a step would make the process more efficient, they said.
"The code as written has some artificial stops," said George Haggerty, an assistant administrator with the county's Department of Land Use. "It seems a little nonproductive because at the end of the day, you either have a plan that meets the code requirements or doesn't."
Anyone who wants to build a big development -- such as a subdivision, strip mall or industrial park -- must submit an exploratory plan to the department. The plan advances to the preliminary stage as certain requirements are met. Finally, the plan goes to the record stage before construction begins.
Under the change, the preliminary stage would be eliminated.
"We just want to be able to let people proceed at their own pace," Haggerty said. "There's enough in the code that we don't need to manufacture stuff along the way."
Haggerty points to traffic-impact studies as an example of how the change would improve efficiency.
Currently, developers have to conduct the study, which examines how the project would affect traffic flow and congestion, before their plans can move to the preliminary stage.
"So it shuts all the rest of the engineering down," Haggerty said. "Everybody waits until that bell goes off."
Without a preliminary stage, however, the developer could continue to work on other aspects of the plan without waiting to finish the study.
Although the proposal would also get rid of a public hearing that usually occurs before the Planning Board during the preliminary stage, Land Use General Manager Charles Baker said residents still can comment at two other intervals.
The council last year began requiring a public hearing in front of the Planning Board for all major plans at the exploratory stage. And there is another public hearing in front of council before a plan goes to the record stage.
"That midpoint hearing at the preliminary stage was not adding value," Baker said.
Officials also said a two-step process would get rid of some redundant reviews, possibly shaving off four to six months for the developer.
Larry Tarabicos, a Wilmington attorney who represents developers, said a few months less won't make a big difference in the land-use process, which typically lasts two years.
"It may not save time, but it is going to save money," he said. "That's the big benefit."
He said preparation and distribution of a preliminary plan is very costly for developers. Eliminating that step will help them save thousands of dollars.
The change will be introduced as an ordinance to County Council in the coming weeks, but early reaction from council members was favorable.
Some said they've gotten complaints for years from developers who say it takes too long to get anything built in New Castle County.
"Maybe the process will be less cumbersome," Councilman Bill Bell said. "I don't feel it should take somebody 24 months to get to record plan."
Land-use officials said they won't know whether a two-step process will save time until it's put through a real test.
That doesn't surprise Councilman Robert Weiner, who said the county's land-use laws have long been a work in progress, even before the code was enacted in 1998.
"The process continues to go through modifications and changes," he said. "I've been watching this for 20 years. It will never stop."
Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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