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New development to test fast approval program


The developers of Russett Center, a 3,000-home planned community in Western Anne Arundel County, are to be the guinea pigs in an experimental program that could sharply reduce the time needed to win government approvals.

If it works, the concept could "revolutionize the way permits are done in Maryland" by reducing the time it takes to get approval from three years to 14 months, said Sharon Tucker, an environmental consultant to the developers.

The concept was unveiled yesterday by the 15 county, state and federal agencies involved in approving developments. The meeting, conducted for planners from other counties and developers, took place at a hotel near Baltimore Washington International Airport.

The concept is deceptively simple. It calls for the agencies to review jointly the plans for the final 900 homes at Russett.

Although the concept seemed like a "no-brainer," Ms. Tucker said, it became clear as they devised plans for a consolidated review that many of the 15 agencies involved had no idea what the others actually did.

It also became clear why it can take as long as three years to steer a new housing development through a gauntlet of agencies, each with its own rules, often making contradictory demands.

"Permit ping-pong," Ms. Tucker called it. "You have agencies not understanding each other and the developer not understanding anybody."

Bureaucratic delays cost developers and the government huge amounts that are passed on to homebuyers and taxpayers, said Marshall Zinn, vice president of Curtis F. Peterson Inc., a development consultant to Russett.

"When you are developing houses, you have to get them approved, built and sold as fast as you can," he said. "If you don't, the interest payments will just roll right over you."

During the past six years, the developers of Russett Center, for example, have been stuck in some very expensive red tape.

Before they could build the first house in the first phase of their 613-acre project, developers had to wait for bureaucrats to grant dozens of environmental and other subdivision approvals. And while they waited, they rang up $300,000 a month in interest charges on their mortgage loans.

The experiment requires Russett to provide the agencies with detailed information about the site, including the exact location of wetlands, before the developer's engineers begin designing roads, storm water systems and house lots, said Jim Cannelli, assistant county planning officer.

As it is, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment -- two agencies with the power to veto a developer's plans -- only enter the picture after he has spent two years and 90 percent of his nonconstruction expenses, Mr. Zinn said. A last-minute objection from them sends the project back to square one.

Though the new procedure will cost developers more up front, it will save money in the long run by eliminating the need to #F redesign the project at the last minute, Mr. Cannelli said. Reviewing agencies can alert developers to potential problems in time for the engineers to avoid them.

Giving the reviewing agencies more input sooner reduces the review time required later, making them more productive, Mr. Cannelli said. "Frankly, we don't like having to review a project six times. It's a waste of our time," he said.

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