When the Department of Development Services was formed in 2008, it was with the realization that the county needed to be more business friendly and help businesses through the development process. “We realized that we were often viewed as obstacles and roadblocks to developers instead of partners in the process to insure a timely delivery of a safe project,” said Wade Hugh, Development Services Director. “So, we devised a concept that would bring to the table a dedicated project management team comprised of an expert in land development and building development to manage the project from submission to bond release.”
The basic concept behind the Project Management approach is to provide the customer with a consistent point of contact for land and building development. And while the economic downturn during the Great Recession all but halted development in Prince William County, officials with the Department Development Services realized that when the economy eventually did improve, the last thing businesses and the development community needed would be red tape delaying projects even further.
So, with the anticipated workload, Development Services needed to hire more staff to provide a sufficient level of service. In spite the economic downturn, county officials considered a 12.5 percent increase in commercial building fees to hire three new Development Project Managers to help architects, planners, developers and contractors navigate the regulatory process more easily. The result would be greater on-time completion rates for new projects moving forward in the county as the economy improved.
Prince William County Building Official Eric Mays said, by-and-large, the business community embraced the increase. Some wrote letters to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors supporting the move. Many offered their support once they realized that the expedited process could save them money above and beyond the fee increases.
With support from the development community, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors authorized the fee increase so that project managers would be well positioned to help move commercial development along as the economy improved.
They saw the benefit of having managers dedicated to their projects, and the development community embraced the idea. Mays said, “If you want a litmus test of industry supporting the program, the fact that they agreed to a 12 ½-percent fee increase says it all.”
While local developers showed a readiness to accept the new way of thinking, Out-of-state developers were unsure of the process. However, with three phases all geared toward creating a partnership to shepherd projects through the regulatory process of land and building development, they soon came around on the idea.
The first phase is the Partnership Approach Phase, where department officials and stakeholders meet at the outset of a project to establish a good working relationship. In this phase, county officials and project stakeholders establish common ground and begin forming a partnership to completing the project.
Oscar Guzman, the division chief for the land development division points out the value of having the land development and building development staff at the table together with the developer in order to better navigate the project through completion. “Obstacles that might pop up are more easily dispatched early in the process,” Guzman said. “The most significant thing is they come in while they’re still in the conceptual phase of the project so they can identify any major issues with land and building development at that time.”
Mays said the early involvement puts stakeholders at ease with the process, “They’re not used to regulatory people thinking as partners. They see us as an obstacle to their goal of getting that business open. However, once they realize that we care more about identifying and solving problems, they start accepting us as partners, and we get really positive results.”
Chad Roop, one of the county’s three new project development managers, said developers, planners and contractors ultimately come around. “We promote that partnership, that culture. When our employees and the development community buy into it, it’s just so much easier for them to get through the process as quickly as possible.”
Once a partnership approach is accepted, the project manager moves the project along to the Early Assistance Phase. During this time, land officials, building officials and stakeholders identify potential obstacles in the planning, inspection and permitting processes. It helps forecast where stakeholders might encounter obstacles to prevent delays and save developers money.
Haywood Kines, also a development project manager, said early assistance is a key component to the new process. “If you can eliminate a round of review or you can reduce the number of reviews that come up in field inspections, and get those issues resolved quickly, you’ve saved them a lot of time. Time is money in construction. If the project is delayed a month, it costs a lot of money.”
Roop points out that the success of the project management program is the focus on teamwork. “It’s not us against them. It’s us working together as a team to complete that common goal of getting a project to completion in a quick efficient time, so it’s not costing the more money than they anticipated.”
The final phase of the approach is the Project Issue Resolution Phase, which is designed to fix anything that was not caught at the beginning of the process. Issue resolution helps ensure that technical issues that crop up along the way are resolved quickly to prevent unforeseen project delays or the release of the developer’s bonds.
While processes sometimes seem great in theory, hearing from the development community is truly the testament of whether the process works.
Randy Hebert, the director of construction of Floor & Décor, a firm based in Smyrna, Ga., recently sent an email to Mays, Hugh, and Christopher Phillips, another of the county’s development project managers.
Hebert’s email said the customer service he received from Development Services was “absolutely, positively, outrageous” in a good way. “We look forward to having a professional and lasting relationship with Prince William County and are pleased to be an active member of the community,” Hebert said.
Mays said the approach, with its three pillars, helps eliminate regulatory separation between divisions which can sometimes work separately without regard to the big picture. Customers aren’t concerned with the government machinery behind the counter. They want to see results, Mays said. “The biggest thing we’re trying to create is a project-oriented culture. Creating a culture goes beyond creating a program. The project oriented culture is that we don’t think in silos. Laws and regulations are in silos, so it’s very easy for us to get caught in our own little world or our regulations, but our customers don’t look at us that way.”
It takes work, Mays said, to balance customer service against regulations. Education, communication and partnership helps in the balancing act. “The more we understand them and what they’re trying to accomplish and they understand our regulatory process, then at the end of the day their business opens more quickly with a final product that meets all safety issues the regulations are in place to insure.”