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City implements new program to streamline permitting process

Portland's Department of Planning and Urban Development rolled out a new series of office hours to allow developers to talk about prospective projects with staff members from various departments to help streamline the permitting process.
"I think it's a way to make the system work better for everyone," said Jeff Levine, director of the city's Department of Planning and Urban Development.
The new programming would allow developers to schedule half-hour appointments with a group made up of representatives from planning, inspections, historic preservation, public services and fire prevention during the pre-development stages of a project to get a handle on prospective issues that might arise and offer feedback to make the permitting process more useful and efficient.
"... Office hours are just one of many improvements underway to help both streamline and improve the delivery of key services that directly impact the city's economic growth and quality of life," said Mayor Michael Brennan, in a press release. "Whether a simple addition or a multi-million dollar project, it is important to us that the public knows we are committed to moving you through the planning and permitting process in a way that gets you to the finish line in a reasonable amount of time with a high quality end product."
From the city's perspective, Levine said the earlier the staff can get information on a project, it's easier to ask developers to make changes. He said it's better to have a chance for developers to talk with the staff earlier before they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on plan and wind up having to make changes.
"That's not good for anybody," he said.
The office hours won't replace developers' ability to schedule individual appointments with the city's planners, said Levine, but give them a chance to have representatives from a number of departments in the same room at once.
Another benefit of having the the various people involved in the permitting process in the same place is that it can create less of a headache for developers who go to one office and are told to change a part of the project and another person says more changes are needed, said Levine. The office hours gets all of those people in the same place, he said, and they can have a dialogue about issues that could arise.
Levine said the office hours sessions won't supplant any part of the public review portions of the planning process, like the Planning Board, Zoning Board and Historic Preservation Board meetings.
"It's designed to try to talk through all of the issues ahead of time," he said, and, hopefully, expedite the permitting process.
Levine said he's gotten a positive reception about the new sessions and the department will have to wait to see if it's helpful for developers.
Chris Hall, acting CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, said developers want certainty as they plan substantial and costly projects, and changes to the planning process can be a burden.
"The city's new predevelopment office hours give business people an important new tool in the permitting process that identifies opportunities and challenges at the beginning of a project and promises a smoother, more efficient path to new jobs and investment in the city," Hall said, in a statement.
Aside from the office hours session, the department is implementing several other initiatives to improve efficiency.
Levine said one improvement is using the city's E-Plan software to make the review process less reliant on paper and allow multiple divisions to look at a project and comment at the same time rather than waiting for hard copy documents to be passed around. He said another part of the accessory improvements is making technology upgrades to allow inspectors to file reports and access plans on the computer during site visits.
The city is working with Jared Clark of Government Consulting Group and the Muskie School of Public Service to look at the department's operations and find ways to make possible improvements.
Levine said he's focused on what can be done to fix the permitting and inspections processes and have the department operate as efficiently as it can.
"We'll keep trying things out," he said.

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