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Metro Atlanta planning pros convene to find fixes for troubled permitting process

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Said the city’s planning czar at recent meeting: “We have to change .... We cannot invest in a broken system”

Ever since Tim Keane took the helm of Atlanta’s planning department three years ago, top-ranking officials agree the city has seen improvements in its notoriously slow and complex permitting processes.

And so said a panel of planning professionals and developers gathered by Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore for a November 1 meeting.

The purpose of the meeting, however, was to mend a permitting system that’s still consequentially flawed, with real impact on neighborhoods (and bottom lines) across the city.

During his time at Atlanta City Hall, Keane has sought to simplify the way developers, small businesses, and Atlanta laymen put development projects—both small-scale and large—into action.

Still, the panel and Keane agree there’s work to be done to streamline Atlanta’s—and metro Atlanta’s—permitting processes.

There’s no “one size fits all” way to address all of metro Atlanta’s permitting issues, said Tom Gehl, Georgia Municipal Association’s director of government affairs. “I can attest to you that there are different shapes and sizes.”

Georgia has, once again, been dubbed the best state in the nation to do business, he reminded the audience, although, “No city is alike, except that they all want to support economic activity.”

Another panelist, GMA consultant Kay Love, said cities need to better understand the who, what, when, where, and why of various projects, so that the little guy isn’t expected to have the planning prowess of many big-shot developers.

Leaders need to be “improving transparency and communication,” she said, while “[setting] realistic expectations” for each project. “It boils down to who’s sitting down at the desk at both sides,” she said.

A 2015 image illustrating the number of large-scale construction projects in just a few Midtown blocks.
Curbed Atlanta

“Developers expect to know what a city wants,” but if a city can’t communicate that, there need to be improvements, she said. And standardizing the process needs to be a top priority.

Mark Woodall, Associated General Contractors of Georgia director of governmental, backed up Love’s claim, saying, “We’ve had cities doing things one way and counties doing things another way.”

Some sense of uniformity seems necessary, they all seem to agree.

Said Keane: “The nature of the [permitting] business is so much conflict and challenge.”

“The problem was, there was no acknowledgement of who the customer was,” he said, meaning there’s been little difference “between building a fence and 40-story building.”

Another reason planning projects can be so complicated is the amount of municipal departments that people must go through to get the green light to proceed.

Steve Brock, president of residential developer Brock Built homes, said a “central point of contact” is needed. “There are many times that one department tells us one way to do things [in conflict with another],” he said.

Some of these conflicts seem to stem from current staffing issues at the city’s planning department.

The Atlanta planning department’s new interim chief inspector for the office of buildings, Steve Johnson, is working to bolster the employ count over the next few years.

In the meantime, in order to speed up and simplify processes, Keane and others agree, a one-stop-shop for permitting is paramount.

Right now, Keane said, it takes the permitting office about 10 days to provide first comments for a commercial plan. It takes five days for residential projects.

“We want any resident of the city or a small business person who does not have a PhD in permitting to be able to come in here and get a permit,” he said.

One way to crack down on speed bumps, which the commissioner has been working on, is the implementation of an electronic filing system. The system—which could drastically reduce the amount of paperwork planners are required to submit to city officials—could show signs of progress by next month, he added.

Keane said that, in Atlanta, “We love to regulate things,” but sometimes regulation can devolve into overreach. “Another thing we should be cognizant of is that every time we create a regulation, we make things more complicated,” he said at the meeting.

“We have to deregulate the zoning process and focus more directly on what we’re trying to achieve and just focus everything, instead of having a laundry list of regulations that people have to follow,” he added. “For all this to improve, we cannot keep the processes that we have. We have to change the processes. We cannot invest in a broken system.”

Atlanta is, of course, ripe for development, according to Moore, and more careful assessment of the permitting process is needed.

In the near future, she said, “We will be doing more deep dives into these issues.”