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OP-ED: Tired of Land-Use Drudgery? A Simplified Strategy Starts at Home

Overview

Forty years ago, municipal and county zoning and land-use ordinances could be captured on just a few sheets of paper. Today, page counts number in the hundreds, and the list of codes, rules and regulations seems to expand after every city council, town hall or state-agency meeting. Permitting timelines are getting longer (despite numerous requirements that decisions be made within a specific period), and the expenses associated with regulatory compliance account for an increasing percentage of the cost of a new home, office building or shopping center.

Despite ongoing calls to simplify the rules, procedures and laws surrounding land use, even the most optimistic real estate and legal professionals among us know that things are likely to become more – rather than less – tangled in the future. Since time equals money earned or spent (plus opportunities won or lost), what can real estate developers, builders and investors do to streamline the process?

In the face of this somewhat insurmountable wall of complexity, perhaps the best advice comes in the form of a well-known proverb: “Physician, heal thyself.” In other words, focus on those things that are within your control.

One of the best ways to streamline zoning, permitting, entitlement and approval processes is to develop good working relationships with government officials. You can’t buy trust, but you can earn confidence and respect by interacting fairly and honestly with people at every level of the regulatory system. It’s simple human nature: the people sitting across from you at the negotiating table or the public hearing are more likely to work with you, rather than against you, if you’ve demonstrated credibility and a willingness to engage in discussions that lead to resolution. While there are no guarantees, there is a higher likelihood that you’ll be able to move the ball down the field when the defense isn’t so … defensive. Put even more bluntly, you want people to pick up the phone when you call, not send you directly to voicemail.

Engage the services of effective legal counsel and consultants who know government policy and processes inside and out. Such experts can help you avoid costly and time-consuming mistakes. Of course, don’t forget the advice in the previous paragraph: in addition to know-how, look for professionals who’ve cultivated the same positive relationships with agency officials that you’re seeking to develop and sustain.

Increase your involvement in policy development and determining the economic future of your community. This is more of a long game, but you have a voice and you should use it. Attend public meetings and hearings; join industry, trade and advocacy groups; and make sure that legislative and regulatory officials truly understand the impact of their decisions on your business and the communities within which you work. Most people want their towns and cities to grow and prosper, but unless all sides of an issue are heard, it’s possible for even the most well-intentioned proposals to have unforeseen consequences.

Housing affordability and security, for example, is an area in which most people are trying to do the right thing. Strong cities and towns depend on and benefit from the contributions of individuals and families from across the economic spectrum. Housing options and prices should reflect this diversity – we’ve seen the challenges facing cities where rents, particularly those in neighborhoods closest to economic centers, are unaffordable for a significant portion of the workforce.

Finally, look to your own organization. Is your company organized to work as efficiently as possible? Do you have the right people in the right jobs? Do your internal processes mean that you’re always ready for the next step, or are you consistently behind the curve? Ask yourself hard, challenging questions and be prepared to take action once you know the answers.

Taken together, these efforts may not slow the expansion or complexity of land-use regulations. They can, however, help your business achieve greater efficiencies at every step of the land-development process.

Column first appeared in the Daily Journal of Commerce on February 16, 2018.

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