‘SOLUTIONS, NOT JUST PROBLEMS’: City panel aims to improve development review process in Destin

Matt Algarin
Projects like Venue Emerald Coast, bottom, along Commons Drive and the Beach Zone project, above, on Hwy. 98 could work their way through the development review and permitting phases faster after suggestions by a city appointed blue ribbon panel.

After nine months of meetings, a city council appointed blue ribbon panel has recommendations for improving Destin’s development review process.

“We sort of approached this as a funnel and started going through ideas,” said panel chairman Ed Stanford, of Core Engineering and Consulting Inc.

Comprised of engineering consultants, site contractors, general contractors and industry professionals, the panel was tasked with combing though the city’s current review process and looking for ways it could be simplified or improved to streamline development reviews, ultimately making it more business friendly.

Stanford was joined on the panel by: Bob Black (Adventure Development, Inc.), Mike Buckingham (Underground, Inc.), Wayne Cassidy (Panhandle Plumbing, Inc.), Vice Chairman Jeff Linn (Gulf Coast Electric), Kay Rasmussen (Economic Development Council), and Carey Trotter (Trotter’s General Contractors). Eric Babin from the Building Industry Association also participated in the meetings.

After boiling down dozens of topics, the group presented a series of recommendations to city leaders during their Nov. 5 meeting.

Improve application process Looking at the current process, Stanford said it’s very time and paper intensive, so the group wanted to look at ways to streamline the process.

“We wanted to cut through the things we didn’t think were necessary,” he said, adding that while the actual application is about nine pages, the package people submit is about 65 pages.

Solutions include creating an electronic submission process; providing applicants with estimated timelines and flowcharts; and implementing a standardized fee that would be based on a historical average to cover costs.

Current average cost for a minor Tier 1 project are $2,354; $2,042 for a minor deviation; $585 for a simple deviation; and $1,173 for a minor re-plat.

“One thing we felt like when going through the process is that we are being nickel and dimed with FedEx charges or consulting fees or mail out charges,” Stanford said.

Expediting the process for targeted industries Given the current economic climate, Stanford told the council that being able to expedite the review process for targeted industries would “put them ahead” in the process since they are businesses that are very attractive to the city.

“We are trying to encourage people to develop here and build here,” he said.

Given the “rigid” review and permitting process, Stanford said the city should consider allowing a bit of flexibility, such as on-site amendments, as long as they stay within the parameters of the land development code.

“This all boils down to what we feel is probably the most important recommendations — to start targeting software to process things and get us to the point where we are not so paper intensive,” he said. “I’m putting together a development order package right now — 12 sets of applications, 12 sets of drawings, 12 sets of landscape plans, 12 sets of architecture plans…”

Specialized development software There are various types of software available to cities and municipalities when it comes to permitting and building review. Stanford said it could be expensive, but they have proposed adding a 5 percent processing fee to permits and development orders to help offset the cost.

Community Development Director Ken Gallander said the software could range from $50,000 to $130,000, depending on what they choose.

Sire’s Active Review and Avolve Software’s ProjectDox System are two examples of possible software solutions the city could purchase to help the review process.

According to Avolve Software’s website, “ProjectDox Electronic Plan Review and Project Information Management and Collaboration gives citizen-customers and government personnel from many departments – and even outside agencies – access to plans, documents and stored data in a way that lets people work together better.”

“We feel that this is going to provide you that transparency, so that people are not wondering where their development order or building permit is in the process,” Stanford said. “It will reduce paperwork for your staff, they will have an immediate access to the plans on their computer, they will be tracking, and it will all be real-time.”

“That really is the crux of our whole development review process,” he added.

Provide quality customer service While giving the city kudos on this front, Stanford said, he suggested implementing a comment card/survey measurement tool; enhancing customer service training and exchanging of public information via multiple communications channels, such as Facebook, the city’s website, press releases, and city partners like the Economic Development Council and Destin Area Chamber of Commerce.

While Stanford told city leaders he didn’t expect them to adopt the panel’s recommendations overnight, he said the proposals should at least put the city on the right track moving forward.

“If we can improve the process by days, weeks or months that’s less waiting, which means we can get them in our community quicker and paying taxes, which helps evolve the community,” Gallander told The Log.

With a unanimous vote, city leaders accepted the recommendations from the panel. Now they are tasked with creating an implementation plan, which would be presented to the council in the future.

“This was vitally important, especially when you talk about economic development,” Mayor Sam Seevers said. “You guys came up with solutions, not just problems.”