Application Completeness

Dear Management Doctor:

I am looking for information regarding when to determine an application complete.  I know the Permit Streamlining Act, but would like to get a practical answer regarding how much flexibility a Planning Office has regarding when to determine an application complete.  We have a client who always sends in a fairly complete application (owner signature, 10 copies of plans, etc.).  The problem is the information on the plans is not always accurate or does not always provide staff with enough information to make to make a determination on the project. (For example one subdivision map application included one much larger parcel that was landlocked with no explanation.)  Is incorrect or insufficient information enough to deem an application incomplete or if they submit all requested copies and fill out the application form, must the application be deemed complete? 

Thank you,

Dear Anonymous,

A great question that varies substantially across the country and from community to community. I will be particularly eager to get some responses from planners in California.

Some communities do both a quantitative and qualitative review before declaring an application complete. This tends to bog down the process. I tend to be closer to what you are doing which sounds like a quantitative review. However, I would not object to a brief qualitative look so long as it is done in a quick way. In California, you get up to 30 days to declare an application complete and I believe you can ask for qualitative information during that time.

Irrespective of this issue, the question is, can you ever ask for additional information after declaring an application complete. Within certain limits, I believe you can. I don’t know if this has ever been litigated. In your case, I assume you can simply tell the applicant you can’t approve a subdivision with a land locked parcel which should get the other information you want. In California, there are slightly different approaches to a normal application and one involving CEQA. This opens the door to a variety of interpretations.

Most communities only have a planner or a counter person looking at a complete application. However, key issues and the need for more data often come from other functions such as engineering, fire, and transportation. You can handle their needs in a quantitative review but for a qualitative review, they would need to be involved. Some places have an inter-department review, early in the process and wait to declare the project complete following this meeting.

Click here for a link to another Management Doctor on this topic.

Let’s see what our emailers have to say.
Best wishes,

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

I liked your answer. To comment a bit further, I try to not declare an application complete when there major items, including those requiring work by consultants, still missing.  The reason is because the owner will start the clock for complaining about how long the city takes to review an application from the date it is complete even though city review cannot be completed pending review of major missing items. However, items that are easy to fix or complete, especially when the applicant is known to the city and is reliable to work with, are not a problem. Based on my experience, there are many cities where the culture around completeness is much stricter.

Carol D. Barrett, FAICP

Our process in a very small office is not to declare an application complete unless everything called for is included, and that includes a very detailed checklist of what must be on the plat or the site plan or whatever is being presented. So the content is reviewed as part of the application checklist before declaring it complete. Our ordinance and checklist for a subdivision plat application clearly states any parcels not included in lots must be identified and explained. Perhaps a longer checklist on the application form itself would  help you get more complete applications.

Toni Foran
Planning Director
Hurricane City, Utah

I have a suggestion. Have a "Completeness Checklist" as part of the submission package that has blocks on the form to be checked off for the factors or material that must be part of the application and require that it be signed by the applicant or the representative submitting the application.The initial quantitative completeness review can usually be completed on the spot while the subsequent qualitative evaluation takes much longer. The signed checklist goes a long way to eliminating incomplete submittals by consultants that are just trying to meet application deadlines and shift blame for any subsequent delays to the staff processing the applications. The checklists are especially useful for jurisdictions that charge resubmittal fees.

Hope this is helpful.
Bruce McClendon

This is a very interesting question for discussion. I work in a smaller community and getting a complete application is a challenge. We have  preliminary review meeting(s) and often the plat, CSM, other submittals are still incomplete or missing information or explanation. It seems that many developers/owners want us to do all of the work for them, they don’t understand the code, don’t want to accept the zoning codes and hire professionals that don’t want to do their homework.

Because some submittals are time sensitive, I review the application and attachments and move to the Plan Commission Agenda for action with Planner recommendations or comments. The PC makes a conditional approval; no action with more work to be done, or charge a second submittal fee.

I will be anxious to hear how others handle this. I prefer the complete application with complete correction information or descriptions.

Marilyn Haroldson

In my opinion, determining application completeness sometimes has competing objectives: first, ensuring that all information required and/or needed has been filed, second, that this determination doesn't unnecessarily slow the process down.

In resolving this issue, we take the following approach – require a pre-application conference as a mandatory step in any major zoning case, the planner conducting a pre-application conference is responsible for preparing a follow-up memo to the developer\APPLICANT that summarizes the overall discussion and itemizes the information required, especially if it falls under the category of "and additional information deemed necessary." Additionally all commenting agencies are identified at this stage so plans can be referred earlier in the process, hopefully to avoid delay in completing external reviews.

This record of the pre-application conference also includes what issues are of primary importance in the application which provides focus for the next review. The next review is a determination that the application is "complete for review," thereby allowing a public hearing to be scheduled. Some may consider this a high degree of "handholding" but when managed effectively it makes the process clear and efficient. In that all parties to the application should now understand the expectations of the project from either the developer or staff.

Wayne Oldroyd