Spokane Journal of Business

Development process improves

Efforts to streamline red tape, improve attitudes at city, county said bearing fruit

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Though the regulatory maze remains tortuous for some, developing property in the Spokane area appears to be getting easier, industry and government officials say.


That may be most evident in comments by developers, contrasted by time.


Its getting to the point of ridiculous, Spokane developer Dick Vandervert said back in 1986. Im ready to leave Spokane and go to a city where they welcome development. Its just not worth the effort to do business here anymore.


Flash forward to last week.


Theyre just doing a wonderful job, says developer Walt Worthy of the city officials he has dealt with while redeveloping the Davenport Hotel. Id fought (with them) about every project Ive done here for 25 years. They did everything they could do to stop me from doing developments. If I said north, theyd say south. Now, theyre just as helpful as they could be.


What happened in those 16 years? A lot of meetings. A lot of fist pounding. And, ultimately, a lot more communication, say those involved in continuing efforts to streamline the process.


I always thought that engaging county staff in a conversation in a non-threatening venue, when there isnt a big project being discussed and money at stake, would be a good thing, says Mike Taylor, president of Taylor Engineering Inc.


Taylor has been a longtime participant in efforts to help ease regulatory problems at both the city of Spokane and Spokane County. Among them is a development task force at the county that was launched late last decade by the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and Focus 21. Its attended by county staff members; local developers, builders, and engineers; and representatives of neighborhood groups and building industry associations.


Whats changed over the last few years, Taylor says, is a willingness of county staff to work with a developer and the neighborhoods and sit down and talk about it in a rational and collegial discussion.


Adds Gerry Gemmill, the countys assistant to the CEO of public works, who has attended many of the task-force meetings, As you work through this (task force), you hear questions you havent heard before. There had never been a forum to ask these questions.


I dont think they realize how far theyve come, Gemmill says of all the parties involved.


To be sure, the process still has plenty of flaws, both developers and government officials say. A good example is how the owner Wemco Inc., a Spokane manufacturing company, could become so frustrated with the regulatory roadblocks put in front of his plans to build a new plant on the West Plains that he now is considering moving the company elsewhere. (See editorial, page A4.)


Others, too, still complain of capricious decisions by city and county planners, and seemingly endless delays to move a project through the process.


There are certainly glitches, says Taylor, but its improving. Its not a universal whine like it used to be.


City further behind


Most people contacted for this story say that Spokane County is making greater gains in improving the development process than is the city of Spokane, though they universally praise the citys top building official, Dave Nakagawara. They say that since taking that post in late 1998, Nakagawara has gradually pushed for change at City Hall, despite internal resistance from staff.


The City Council is preoccupied with other things, but Dave Nakagawara is trying, says Taylor. The problem with the city is that there are still city officials who want to build little fiefdoms. Thats where you get the stories about the guy who wants to build a white picket fence in his front yard being sent to seven different departments.


Taylor says he believes that the mayors office sincerely wants Spokane to be known as an efficient and accommodating city when it comes to the building process, but suggests that officials still need to quietly attach themselves to a building project, and watch it as it goes through the system to find out where the pinch is, where the breakdown is.


Says Walt Worthy, I cant say enough good things about Dave Nakagawara.


For his part, Nakagawara admits that the city has a ways to go to make its development process less cumbersome and more predictable. Its a classic case of regulations and agencies expanding, making the process harder to navigate, he says.


Nakagawara says the report produced back in late 1999 by the chamber was a very good thing, and that he has tried to work toward its recommendations, though he cites budget constraints and staffing issues as hindering those efforts.


One stride the city is making, he says, is in its pre-development conferences, which it offers to developers and builders early in their planning process. The notion of such conferences, which the county also offers, is to provide as much information as possible to an applicant early on, with the hope of eliminating confusion and surprises later.


The criticism we received was that the city officials (at those meetings) were focused more on listing off rules, instead of trying to be more helpful about the process, Nakagawara says. Were trying to make those conferences more friendly, and getting staffers to stay more involved with a project as it moves through the system.


He says that the city has made great strides in improving the attitude of the officials who work with builders and developers. Im calling on my staffers and colleagues to be more responsive.


Theres more work to be done, though, Nakagawara says. Regulations need to be made more understandable, both to staff members and outsiders. City departments need to cooperate and communicate more so that when an applicant moves through the system, he or she receives consistent information from the city. And the city needs to develop its Web site to provide information that developers and builders must have to move a project through the process, and perhaps to provide ways to apply for permits and check on their status online.


Dan Kirchner, the chambers director of public affairs, says he has nothing but praise for Naka-gawara, but adds that budget woes shouldnt slow the citys quest for a more streamlined development process.


Certainly they have budget constraints, but businesses try to innovate, even in the face of adversitymaybe because of adversity, he says. Thats one of the cultural shifts we need to look atto get government to act more like a business.


Changes at the county


Providing online information is one of the ways the county already is trying to improve the process. Many of the guidance brochures it makes available on development and building issuesincluding checklists for how to get a project approvedare now available online, as are copies of application forms for some permits, says Jim Manson, director of building and code enforcement.


Applicants now can fax a permit request in to the county, and pay the fee using a credit card. Next, he says, the county plans to allow for permit filing and fee payment online, and also will give applicants the ability to check the status of an application online, saving a calland perhaps waiting for a returned callfrom a county official.


The county also has begun holding workshops for developers and builders, to answer questions about specific rules, such as storm-water abatement, so that they come into their next development project with more knowledge about whats required and how to navigate the permitting system.


Taylor says one substantive improvement has been the creation of a giant map, or flow chart, of the countys process of moving through to approval a project that would require a public hearing. Though complicated, the chart gives developers a thorough understanding of what they have ahead of them when they embark on a project. He also cheers county check lists that the task force helped to modify and which lists all the necessary documents and plans a developer must supply to secure a commercial development permit.


The county, which now tracks how quickly certain permits are approved, has more than anecdotal evidence to indicate an improvement in the process. Since 1999, the average time it takes to secure a commercial building permit has been reduced 13.3 percent, to about 34 days, says Manson. Thats a shaving of five days.


The countys Gemmill claims theres been a cultural shift at the county in the past few years, with staff members thinking more about customer serviceboth to developers and concerned neighborhood residents near planned developments. He attributes some of that shift to the development task force and efforts spawned from those meetings.


I can tell you that complaints I hear have dropped in half, Gemmill says.


The task force now is led by Dick Heckroth, a former chamber employee and now independent business consultant. Hes being paid a small stipend by the chamber, using funds from Focus 21, to help guide the task forces efforts.


The group primarily has been working through lists of recommended changes to the countys process, compiled by both the chamber and the Spokane Home Builders Association. Though the group has no power to make changes, it makes recommendations to the department and the Spokane County commissioners, and its suggestions have the extra weight of having the consensus of county staff, the development community, and neighborhood interests, says Gemmill.


Heckroth wields the whip, making sure that those at the meetings keep their eye on the ball and follow through on commitments. Hes a pit bull, quips Taylor.


Heckroth also has been pushing lean manufacturing principles on the county. Such principles typically are applied to manufacturing operations and seek to find efficiencies in a process, but also can be applied to office settings. County staff members are looking closely at how they can find duplication and other unneeded tasks in the development process, Heckroth says.


Were looking for tasks that really arent needed anymore; ones people cant even remember why they were being done in the first place, he says.


Such streamlining, says the chambers Kirchner, is a continuous process.


Clearly we have made progress and cleared hurdles in the permitting process, but untying knots in those kinds of organizations takes time, he says. Even the actual process of streamlining can be bureaucratic.


Neighborhood groups


Most people involved with efforts to streamline the countys permitting process say that the inclusion of neighborhood groups in the discussions is wise.


Taylor says that neighborhood groups help provide a balanced credibility to the effort, making sure that the county isnt getting undue influence from the development community.


Adds Gemmill, Now, they have a structure to bring issues to us and the development community.


Betty Wilson, who has served on the task force for more than two years and represents the Forest Hills Homeowners Association, in the Five Mile area, describes the broad-based task forces efforts as a success.


It has brought about a better understanding, she says. Theres a real effort to resolve problems between the developers, the county, and homeowners.


She contends that neighborhood groups used to be looked on as meddling troublemakers, but that both county staff and developers appear to accept their input as valuable now.


I have a better understanding of where (the developers) are coming from, she says. I dont always agree with them, but thats OK; we all agreed thats its all right to disagree.


I think its worthwhile, Wilson says. Its brought about some real efforts by the county to streamline the process.

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