Development Review Committees

Dear Management Doctor,

I found your website after listening to the panel discussion in which you participated in Austin, Texas on best practices in the development review process. I am the current planning manager in Bozeman, Montana a town of approximately 40,000 people. I am working on a project to review our City’s development review procedures, specifically the aspects around the coordination of the staff review step. In Bozeman, we use a development review committee approach that is conducted on a weekly basis in a public meeting, with the various superintendents and managers of the City’s technical divisions. This approach is very resource consumptive. Can you point me in the direction of any cities that you may know of that use an alternative system that may be more efficient or direct me to any resources you might have that would be that specific in nature?

Thanks in advance for your time.

Dear Brian,

We have now worked with 170 cities throughout the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean, and have seen many models for this type of committee. I don’t have a one model that fits all, and the approach needs to fit the specifics of each community, the volume of activity, and the complexity of the ordinances. A few of the models we see include:

1. No Committee
This works for simple types of projects or where there are few reviewers. However, in a large high volume community things tend to breakdown and the applicant is left to make the rounds between departments.

2. A Committee for Staff Only
Many communities simply have a committee of staff only without the applicant. They are reluctant to expose any differences between departments to the applicant. I don’t support this system and we always recommend that the applicant attend. We need to be adults and expose our ideas or code interpretations to others.

3. A Committee that Includes the Applicant
This model makes the most sense in communicating with the applicant and actually solving issues around the table. We worked with a great model of this in an Arizona community and they went around the table solving problems, except when they got to the City Engineers representative. He always had the same answer, “I will need to check and get back with you.” Our solutions was simple, we asked the City Engineer to send someone to the meeting who could make decisions.

4. A Committee that Includes the Applicant and the Public
I haven’t seen many of these. In many states, it is likely that if the public wants to attend they would be allowed to do so. Then the question becomes, can they participate in the meeting? My inclination is that the meeting should be mostly to resolve issues between the applicant and staff, but if public is involved it should be carefully controlled and not simply another public meeting.

5. Small Committee and Project Managers
Irrespective of the model, we think there should always be a project manager who has the responsibility to resolve issues between departments, as well as the public, and problem solve. Calgary, Canada has an unusual model consisting of a number of four-person teams. Each has a planner, engineer, transportation, and parks person. They meet with the applicant and have full decision authority.

Specific Thoughts

I haven’t really answered your questions so here are a few specific thoughts. Hopefully some of our readers will add additional ones.

1. You talk about various superintendents and managers. Do you have more than one staff or manager representing a specific function? If so, they should agree on one person who has the authority for the function.

2. It should not be necessary for the committee to review all projects; only the larger and more complex ones.

3. In small communities like yours, if there is an unusual and major project, it may even be useful to have a work session that involves some of the Planning Commission and City Council.

4. The committee needs to be well organized with a good chairperson. Participants should have reviewed the material in advance and have their comments in writing. In Calgary they are posted on a smart board and edited right there during the meeting. At the end, the applicant has a copy of this preliminary report.

5. The electronic age will impact all of this. Plans will be distributed to all electronically and can be marked up in advance by all participants. The project manager then can decide if a meeting is necessary and if only a selected few need to attend. Although I doubt we will see it soon, I would even let the public participate.

6. Bottom line, if you count up the salaries around the table, this is an expensive process. Your fee structure should reflect the actual cost. A few communities give the applicant the option of having the meeting and then they pay the cost for the meeting.

This is a messy topic so I will be eager to hear how it comes out and other ideas from our readers.

Best wishes,
the Management Doctor

Reader Response

This was an outstanding response. My only additional advice would be to emphasize the importance of making sure that the person representing any department or public entity on the DRC has decision making authority.

Bruce McClendon