Streamline the Development Approval Process

The development approval process refers to the decision-making framework that is used to approve or deny applications for development.  As a home rule state, municipalities in New York have substantial control of local land use decisions. The approval process represents an important way that municipalities can ensure proposed developments align with existing regulations and community goals. However, unnecessary delays in a development approval process can stall the development of much-needed housing, waste the time and resources of both the municipality and the developer, and increase the cost of development.

Development approval delays are associated with several common factors that are with the municipality’s control and can be corrected. These corrections can include:

  • Providing readily accessible information about the development review and approval process.
  • Elimination of duplicative or redundant steps in the approval process.
  • Coordination of various boards and agencies during the approval process.
  • Clear application forms and directions to applicants concerning needed data for development review.
  • Focus of highlighting and correcting bottlenecks within the approval process where projects are routinely held up.
  • Creating a single point of contact for the applicant who is responsible for shepherding the project through the approval process.
  • Land use policies with standards that are not well defined and too open to interpretation and discretion.
  • Establishing time periods in which the development review process must be completed by municipal staff.

Undertaking these corrections will contribute to a development process that is no longer unnecessarily cumbersome and foster a greater degree of certainty for developers.  As a result, approval costs for developers will likely decrease and create a less confrontational approval process that can be used to achieve other community goals. Streamlining the review process can also avoid a worst-case scenario in which a project that the community wants is canceled due to a length or cumbersome approval process.

How to Streamline the development approval process?

There are several strategies for improving the development approval process outlined above that can be broadly classified into two categories:

  1. Municipal decision making mechanisms after a development application is submitted
  2. Communication of municipal expectations and requirements before an application is submitted

Municipal decision making mechanisms after a development application is submitted

Streamlining the approval process that occurs after an application has been submitted starts with an assessment of the existing approval process. It can be helpful to create a flow chart of the approval process which includes decision trees for common scenarios, required documentation, and the person or regulatory body responsible for each action. By charting the current process, municipalities are able to identify points of redundancy, bottlenecks in the process, and other ways to improve the process at the municipal level.

Communication of municipal expectations and requirements before an application is submitted

Clear and accessible conveyance of municipal expectations and requirements for development benefits both developers and the municipality. In many cases, municipalities do not take a proactive approach to conveying what kind of development they want. While all of these pieces of information may exist, they are often found in different locations. For example, a municipality may have a development goal defined in the municipal comprehensive plan, include bulk requirements and use restrictions in the zoning code and be subject to terms of a historical architecture review board found in a different part of the municipal code.

Creating project approval flow sheets that include approval requirements and board approvals can help create clearly defined expectations for developers. Municipalities can proactively convey what type of development they want by distilling local codes and stated development goals into a development “cheat sheet” that concisely expresses the type of development that is desired, and relevant regulations and policies that dictate the terms of development. These cheat sheets can be created for the entire community, specific areas of the municipality, or even specific sites. Site-specific cheat sheets can be used in conjunction with the issuance of a Request for Concepts (RFC). Implementing RFCs is a separate action item within the Ulster County Housing Smart Communities Initiative that municipalities can receive points for. For additional information, please review the “Issue RFCs & RFPs” document.

In addition to the creation of cheat sheets, another way municipalities can communicate expectations is to invite developers to a preliminary meeting before submission of an application. These meetings provide an opportunity to discuss the major details of the project, identify potential issues, and improve the quality of the application. This can reduce the chance of rejection by approving bodies, large project revisions, and appeal hearings. Avoiding these issues will save time and resources for both the municipality and the developer.

Ulster County engages in this practice through meetings called “Gateway Meetings” for projects that would come before the Ulster County Planning Board. Gateway Meetings bring together representatives from relevant approving agencies such as the Health Department, the Department of Public Works, the local planning board, and the Ulster County Planning Board. Municipalities are encouraged to establish a similar process for local development projects.

HSCI Minimum Criteria for Streamlining the Development Approval Process:

  • Identify any discretionary items in the approval process and alter items to become ministerial approvals.
  • Establish a pre-application meeting process for applicants (e.g., Gateway meetings).
  • Create a development cheat sheet for the development review and approval process.

Additional Resources:

Residential Development Cheat Sheet – Town of Ashokan