Bellingham planners hope to speed up process that approves construction projects

Proposed construction projects in Bellingham could get speedier permit approval as city staff members look for permission to cut some fat from various stages of the design review process.

As part of a push by Mayor Kelli Linville to make the city more efficient using “lean principles,” the Planning and Community Development Department found at least 30 days could be cut from the design review process required for projects in the city center and urban villages, according to a staff presentation to the Planning Commission earlier this month.

Typically, those who want to develop land or make improvements to the outside of existing buildings take their project plan through the design review process before getting building permits, unless exempted from doing so by city code.

During “lean” trainingm city employees focused on the customer experience of the review process and tried to find steps that could be cut.

First, staff members found that new applications often were sitting around for three to five days while making their way onto the right desk just to get the process started, Kurt Nabbefeld, a city planner, told the commission Nov. 6.

“That is a huge item of waste,” Nabbefeld said. “It doesn’t need to sit three days.”

Applications now will go straight to planners, who will take care of some of the administrative steps that had caused the backup, Nabbefeld said.

Currently, most applicants also must go through a series of preliminary meetings with planning staff and the volunteer historic preservation commission or design review board before making a formal application. They then go before the respective board again, and ultimately get a decision from the planning director.

Staff found that some projects were required to go before the design review board twice, even when unnecessary, said Chris Koch, a city planner.

“There was a policy that if the project was valued at over $50,000, it was mandatory to go to the board or commission for review,” Koch told the Planning Commission. “You can barely get a canopy installed for under $50,000.”

To cut back on redundancy, planning staff will recommend City Council hold a public hearing on and cut requirements for follow-up meetings unless a board or the director recommends one.

If the appropriate board gives a project the go-ahead at the first meeting and the director finds that no major changes need to be made, that project might be permitted rather than waiting to go before the design review board again the next month only to hear no changes are needed.

Additionally, staff will remove the $50,000 threshold but continue to use the list of exemptions in city code to determine whether a project needs to go before the board, Koch said.

Both Koch and Nabbefeld emphasized that the proposed changes will alter the review process, not the design standards projects are expected to meet.

The Planning Commission unanimously approved the proposal Nov. 20 and forwarded it to City Council for consideration.

Changes could include sending public notice and taking public testimony earlier in the application process since later meetings, where testimony is currently taken, may no longer be necessary.

To view documents related to the proposed changes, go to cob.org/government/meeting-materials.aspx and find the Planning Commission meeting materials for Nov. 6 and Nov. 20 under the tab labeled “2014.”