Before the Development Services Building opened 10 years ago, developers, builders and residents who needed paperwork and permits for their projects had to go all over the county to get everything they needed.
The Health Department and County Fire Marshal's Office was located just outside the City of Manassas, Watershed Management and GIS was in the Ridgewood Center just off the Prince William Parkway, and Building Development, the Planning and Zoning Office and Business Licensing was at the McCoart Administration Center.
Wade Hugh, the director of the county's Department of Development Services, said people could stand in a line at one place only to find out they needed to go somewhere else first. The situation wasn't ideal. People could only hope they hit all of the stops sequentially, Hugh said.
Once the Development Services Building opened, however, things changed. Everything was under one roof, and people could see everyone they needed to see in one stop. People at the Early Assistance Desk could direct residents and developers to the correct place so that the process was easier and quicker for the customer. "We're all housed in one building now," Hugh said. "Customers come in and it's a one-stop shop, which was the goal."
There have been several improvements over the last 10 years, and one of the most significant is the project management program. This program dedicates a land development or building project manager to commercial development projects to help ensure the project gets through the system efficiently and with better coordination. With project managers overseeing projects, problems can be identified early on and solved sooner, Hugh said. "When issues arise, we're more efficient. We're more effective; and we can get answers back to customers quickly."
Rick Lanham is a land development project manager and said his job is to provide a personal touch to customers by walking them through the process if they need direction and answering any questions people might have. Land project managers hold an initial meeting with the developer to make sure they have all their permits, bonds and escrows in place before they get started. If the developers don't have everything in order, the project manager will walk them through the process and get them on track. "Our main job is to review and facilitate approval of subdivision plans, site plans, boundary adjustments – projects like that. Everything flows through us and then flows out to all the different reviewers and agencies."
Once work is underway, the project managers keep track of the work as it proceeds, Lanham said. "For large projects, or even the smaller ones, we go out and see how the project is coming along and if there's anything they need and make sure they're doing what they're supposed to do. Even when the site is under construction, we'll keep reaching out to them to make sure everything is going well, that they're still on target."
Russ Gestl, the principal at Buchanan Partners, a commercial real estate developer that has built 24 projects in the county over the last 17 years, said the strength of the Prince William system, which he said was unique to the area, is that it provides an umbrella over all of the specialties, "Whether it be site plan review, building plan review or permits or bonding, or inspection – you have that community that straddles the entire process. They're engaged the entire time and they have a person that is assigned to your project and has a stake in it. They're in it alongside of you. That is unusual."
Gestl also said the county's system offers certainty in a world where uncertainty abounds. Problems can arise anytime in the land development, construction, finance or occupancy phases of a project, Gestl said. "Problems do come up, and they are a resource in solving that problem," Gestl said of the project managers. "That's the first call I make. There are complexities all around. It's nice to know that there's a resource in the jurisdiction that brings that certainty."
Gestl said the system works for him. "It's a really good thing. We do work in multiple jurisdictions and it is definitely special. It is not the norm."
Gerald Wright, the director of operations at Potomac Mills Mall, said there are 220 tenants at the mall, and he needs to keep up with the churn as old tenants leave and new ones arrive. Wright said he can't afford to have the units to be out of business any longer than necessary, and the people at development services understand that. "Out of these 220 tenants, there comes a time when they're going to need development services for renovations. We're always using development services for build outs, repairs and alterations. Every time we need assistance from these guys, they teach us the better way. The communication is far-reaching, and that's what I love about this department."
Wright, who has worked at four other similar properties, said he, too, has seen more success in Prince William than in other places. "I've worked in multiple counties and this is by far the best."
For more information about the Department of Development Services, visit www.pwcgov.org/dds.