Responses to Application Completeness

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At one of the agencies where I worked, we instituted a optional pre-submittal conference. We had a set day of the week – in our case, Thursday mornings at 8:00 –when applicants could bring in any information they wanted to discuss about an application. The meeting was with the applicants, and representatives from streets, utilities, fire, planning, building and economic development. We’d go over the concept and discuss the kind of information we needed to see on a formal application.

We did require a directive from the mayor to one of the departments requiring that a representative with responsibility and authority to make recommendations was to attend the meetings. Sending a staff member to “take notes” is a waste of everyone’s times. Those attending the meetings must have the authority to say “this is what our department must see in order to recommend approval” – and be able to do it with confidence that someone is not going to change the rules when the application is submitted. There are obvious exceptions—if something completely unanticipated crops up—but the objective of the meeting is to define the review criteria all will respect.

In addition, the applicant was given a printed checklist that included a sample site plan, rendering, application package, and back-up material that demonstrated the kind of information we wanted to see on the project application when it was turned in. We asked several engineering, planning, and architectural firms to give us drawings and documents dummied up for the samples. They were happy to do so at no charge…and we allowed them to display logos and contact information in the title blocks as compensation.

If an applicant went through this system, and submitted a complete application, we promised them that they would get to a planning commission meeting in four weeks, rather than six or eight weeks. We’d also schedule pre-reviewed apps first on the agenda—based on when submitted. That feature encouraged a number of applicants to use the pre-submittal conference process.

When they wanted to turn the application in, we offered the opportunity to set an appointment to submit the application. That way, we would go through it thoroughly. After we implemented this process, our incomplete application rate dropped to under 10 percent of submittals overall and to literally zero from those going through the process. 

An unanticipated consequence – well two consequences – (good) the applications all started to look the same in terms of layout and appearance, which the Commission loved. We also found (challenging) that our staff report writing workload increased with the faster turnaround. With the better application content and advance project knowledge, we were able to adapt without increasing overtime.

We also offered an opportunity for a three week review – the fastest schedule possible with notice requirements – for a double fee. Very few took advantage of this option. Our fees were based on average actual review cost, so it was pretty pricey to gain a week.

This system works well when the commission or design board has final authority. If projects need to go to the city council or county boards/commissions, I’d recommend working with the city/county manager/administrator to see if there is a way to speed up the process when applicants make the effort to submit clean, detailed applications. It’ll buy a lot of political points for efficiency…even with controversial projects.

Although the pre-submittal conference was just an open time slot without appointments, we met with each applicant privately in a closed door session. Because no decision-makers were present and decisions were made, the closed meetings were legal. Some applicants brought in fairly detailed drawings, one literally had the concept on an envelope. All were appreciative. Essentially, the concept put the “we need more information for your complete application” in line in front of submitting the application. It really sped up the overall process and made staff’s life easier when review/report time was upon us.

Eric Jay Toll