Single Point of Contact

Dear Management Doctor:

We are looking to restructure our land development services to a single point of contact. We currently administer land development services through multiple departments, reviews, and approvals. We are looking for examples of communities that use a project manager approach, where one staff oversees a project from rezoning to final inspections for a C/O. 

Does this exist? I see a lot of consolidated Development Services Divisions/Departments, but they seem to still operate by their technical expertise within that Development Services organization. 

Brad Larson, Planner, Community Development,
City of Cedar Rapids Iowa

Dear Brad,

Great question that I hope generates some response from our emailers. I have always thought that the cradle to grave idea makes a lot of sense. However it is almost impossible to pull off. I have seen some attempts and modifications that may be useful.

The big issue is simply one of skills, experience and expertise.

Let’s take a typical project that starts with planning and zoning issues and often also involves a Planning Commission. The case is assigned to a planner who serves as a project manager through the entitlement process. In theory the planner is coordinating all the reviews from engineering, fire, parks, utilities, etc. However, in reality, we see many planners simply being collators and staplers. They take the comments from various specialists and put them in the staff report. What is needed is a project manager who can integrate all the comments and solve problems across specialties for both the applicant and the neighbors. Most planners simply do not have the skill or training to do this properly.

When I was doing development entitlements as part of my consulting practice, I had a planner that could do the cradle to grave. However, let’s contrast this with a typical government planner. She was trained as both an architect and planner and had worked as both. She then spent 15 years as a government planner. She had the background and skills to do the job.

I have a number of examples from cities and counties but am reluctant to use the names since organizations are continually changing. But here are a few examples.

  1. A 150,000 population fast growing city selected 5 project planners to do the cradle to grave. They were mostly well seasoned planners at a high level, slightly below the pay grade of the director. This worked will for a number of years. However, as the positions turned over, they were replaced by staff with less skills and the effort gradually deteriorated.
  2. Another city would provide a project manager when the developer requested one and was willing to pay for the effort.
  3. We often see project managers, single point of contact, assigned for major projects. These are often shopping centers, hospitals, high rise, and major industrial complexes. One city simply selected a high level staff that fit the project or could be made available. Sometimes these were planners, but they were also engineers, or building staff.  In one case for a major leaque baseball stadium, the city project manager was actually the Planning Director. I also saw the Planning Director being used for a major airport remodel. I normally wouldn’t have the Planning Director appointed but am generally supportive of this approach.
  4. We also see the position of Developer Coordinator being used in a number of communities. This person may not be directly handling the project but is responsible for coordination and solving any issues across specialties.

There are other aspects to also think about. Once the entitlement is approved, the applicant proceeds to completing the conditions, site plan approval, construction documents, building permit plan check, building and engineering inspection (sometimes also parks and landscape), and finally certificate of occupancy. Most planners again are not trained to be a project manager across all of these functions.

Normally, the planner who has handled the entitlement is not the person who reviews the site plan and building permit for conformance to the approved entitlement plans. Often this is done by separate zoning staff or the building plan checkers. I think the planner who handled the case should do it, but when tried, it is seen as interfering with other planning work and the project tends to bog down and building plan check is delayed. The building plan checkers are trained to handle the construction of the actual building and don’t like reviewing the planning conditions. They often don’t agree with the planning conditions and aren’t sympathetic to them. The same can happen in the field when building inspectors are asked to check on planning conditions.

How you handle all of this will depend on the type ordinances and conditions that are being applied to projects. When the community gets into design review and detailed site plans and landscape plans, it is necessary for the planners to play a more active role. A major U.S. city had an audit of how well the planning conditions were actually implemented in the construction. They were amazed to find that the conditions were actually completed only 50% of the time.

Here is a list of what I think a project manager should do, even if it is seldom achieved.

  • A successful Planning Project Manager Development Review system entails having a Project Manager perform the following functions:
  • Conducting pre-development meetings
  • Reviewing applications at intake to confirm applications are complete
  • Coordinating routing of plans to other reviewing agencies
  • Collecting and integrating comments from other departments
  • Challenging other department conditions when they appear inappropriate
  • Resolving interdepartmental problems
  • Solving problems not only for the applicant but also the broader public, building the city as a team
  • Analyzing the project for compliance with regulations, policies and long-range plans
  • Being an advocate for the process, i.e., maintains timelines and ensures they are met
  • Coordinating with key decision-makers
  • Coordinating input from regional, state or federal agencies
  • Writing and signing staff reports
  • Presenting formal presentation of the project at public meetings
  • Signing off prior to issuing building permit and Certificate of Occupancy
  • Field reviewing the project six months or a year after construction to determine if approvals were satisfactory or if unintended impacts have occurred.

Hopefully this will start a dialogue with some of our emailers who can add to the discussion.

For better project management,

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

If you are looking for more comments on this one, I have a few more to add.  When I was City Planner for the City of Santa Clara, California I was a designated single point of contact on a couple projects. These contacts were requested by an applicant normally but the City could also initiate. They were usually medium to large-scale projects (such as a proposed high-tech campus or a major housing development). This designation was typically rotated among senior management staff in the Planning, Building, Public Works and City Manager’s Office. The City Manager would send out a memo to the Departments involved in review and permitting of the larger projects noting the particular project, who on staff had been selected as a single point of contact and underscoring staff’s need to work cooperatively to move the project along.

This system worked well, at least in Santa Clara and continues to this day from what I understand. I recall that the biggest challenge typically was getting the applicant to try and have a single point of contact on their end. Quite often the City single point of contact had to work with the applicant and several subs/consultants which made the process more challenging. We could also provide feedback to the City Manager and the applicant in this regard during and after the project process.

Art Henriques
Planning and Management Consultant

I believe that the City of Novi, Michigan does this.  Or at least they did when they had a larger staff before our state’s downturn.  I would check there.


Sean O'Neil

This is great information, thank you.

Brad A. Larson

The City of Overland Park, KS might be a relevant example.  Our department includes planners, building permit review, inspections and engineering.  A planner is assigned as case manager for each case that is submitted for zoning and development plan approval, beginning with the pre-application meeting.  The planner is responsible for all of the essential items you listed below and is supported by a development review team.  Although the transportation planner and engineers may communicate directly with their counterparts on the development team, it is the planner's responsibility to coordinate all comments and issues and find equitable solutions as problems are identified.  It is a very interactive process.  At the construction review stage, project management is handed off to the building permit review division but the planner stays involved in the permit review and is subject to the same review times as the permit review staff.  I would be happy to talk in detail with Brad.

Leslie Karr

We just implemented a project manager system. Three high level staff, one each from planning, building and engineering, have been assigned to be the single point of contact through the entire process of development. The project manager does not change based on technical area of expertise.  They pretty much do everything that you suggested, except they may not be the staff person doing the technical review. The system hasn't been in place for long enough for me to give it a total thumbs up, but our customers are liking it so far.

The key is better communication and understanding the big picture. Our internal communication has improved along with our communication with customers. One of the reasons we implemented the system is that small business owners, in particular, were having difficulty understanding the process and what to do.

Sarah S. More

In one of my previous jobs I worked as a planner for a small city with a population of a little more than 30,000.  Your ideal list of what a project manager would do is almost identical to my job duties in that position.  The department I worked for only had two planners plus a director.  It was an integrated department including planning, code enforcement, building inspections and fire marshal.  The role of the planner was to be the point person, coordinating the projects from pre-application meeting through C.O.  This required a great deal of collaboration with my colleagues who were the building inspectors and fire marshals, as well as numerous outside agencies.  I also worked closely with the code enforcement officers to address zoning violations and compliance with approved conditions.

During my time in this position we were rather busy, and at one point I determined that at any given time I had 60 - 80 open files in some stage of the planning review or the building process.  It did get a bit overwhelming at times, but with frequent assistance from the director and the other planner it was manageable.  I must also mention that I was promoted into this position after only 3 years on the job, so I was not a seasoned planner at the time.  The job had a rapid learning curve, and it gave me some outstanding experiences and on-the-job training that I carry with me today.  I learned about every single aspect of the planning and construction process first hand, which is invaluable for any planner to know.

My point here is that the “project manager” approach probably happens more often than you think, especially in small jurisdictions without the luxury of having planners specializing in different functions.  Another point is that not only did this work, but it turned out to be an essential role for the planner to play in the organization of the department.  Planners are uniquely qualified to look at projects holistically, solve problems, and work across disciplines.  I encourage other jurisdictions to give it a try.  Perhaps larger departments might want to start out by assigning project managers for large or important projects to test out the process first before full implementation.  I think this approach can be an excellent cross-training opportunity for planning staff, both the project manager and those that he/she must coordinate with.

David L. Edgell

Having worked in public and private sector, I can tell you that single point of contact is the holy grail of planning. While used to, and having led, a community development department, it wasn’t until arriving in Arizona I became familiar with Development Services Departments. The reality it’s just another name for a manager over silos. At one time, the City of Scottsdale explored this concept, but the director driving the process retired and I don’t think it was ever implemented.

The concept is a lateral organization chart where the project drives the team and members are drawn from different departments – and for that project, the Project Manager has both responsibility and authority over team members. Without authority, it’s a wasted effort.

There are two ways of handling this: project manager or project coordinator. The coordinator is a lower-level employee, a planning tech, who simply functions as a status clearinghouse. The only benefit this has for an applicant is that there is one person providing information, but does not resolve problems.

The bottom line is that single point of contact will not work unless the project manager – the title for the SPC – has BOTH responsibility and authority over the rest of the team. A project manager would have authority to direct other team members to achieve objectives and meet deadlines.

The ideal situation is a development services department would have a combination of project managers for development or infrastructure projects. Teams would be assigned for each project. A development project, for example would be assigned to  a planning-centered PM, then a planner, transportation engineer or planner, building plans inspector, building inspector, utilities, and other required reviewers would be assigned to that PM. An infrastructure project would be assigned to an appropriate PM.

This lateral organization process would be similar to the system used by design and engineering firms. Team members could be working on multiple projects under different PMs. The PMs need to communicate about deadlines and assignments so that team members are not overloaded. MS Project software does this really well.

Eric Jay Toll

We have a Deputy Economic Development Director that is a planner by way of background and holds and maintains her planning certification (AICP).  For commercial or industrial projects that are deemed to have strategic importance for the City, she essentially escorts and “fast-tracks” these projects through our development review and approval process.  She takes on the role of ombudswoman and provides a single conduit and point of contact for the development interest.  That way, she deals with the nuances of the internal review processes, rather than the development interest which makes their life easier and their experience with the City more convenient.

Forrest E. Cotten

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