City recommending temporary halt to Design Review Board in effort to streamline development process

City staff are recommending suspension of the Design Review Board to see it helps reduce the workload in the planning and community development department and if it helps streamline the oft criticized development review process.

“It’s an extraordinary proposal,” City Manager Greg Doyon said Monday when he told DRB members he was making the recommendation to the City Commission during their Oct. 16 work session. Depending on feedback from the commission, the proposal would move forward for formal action, likely at one of their November meetings.

Doyon said the recommendation is coming from discussions with staff as they’re looking at options to improve the development review process.

Those potential changes that may be implemented include internal staff process changes, which have already started, such as identifying a single point of contact at the city for a project; contracting for a new software to allow digital plan submittal, and up to potential code changes.

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The city has been working through the city code to make revisions and Title 17, the land development code, is one that will be coming in the next year or two.

Doyon said the city planning office has some vacancies and staffers have taken on additional workloads, meaning some are working weekends to keep up and it’s making it difficult to get projects through the process in a timely manner. That’s also impacted by the volume of projects that have been coming to the city this year, including some major projects like the Great Falls Public Schools construction, Wheat Ridge and others.

That volume of projects is good since it illustrates interest and growth in the city, Doyon said, but staff is always monitoring the process.

Doyon said his recommendation isn’t an indicator of the job the board members have done and he said he appreciates their willingness to serve and commit their time to the board.

Over the years, the development community has expressed frustration with the process, particularly regarding the time it takes and the requirements.

“We get feedback that we’re too onerous in our requirements,” Doyon said. “There’s a lot of frustration.”

Projects will still have to meet code requirements, but suspending the DRB means staff won’t have to do the time consuming work of assembling board packets, maintaining minutes and polling board members for quorums. That plan review will be conducted in house on projects that don’t otherwise need Planning Advisory Board/Zoning Commission review or the Board of Adjustment/Appeals for variances or appeals to staff decisions.

David Grosse, a DRB member, asked if without the board would there be an avenue for the public to make comments on proposed projects. He said typically staff does most of the work, “but it’s nice to heard from the public.”

Doyon said it depends on the project, since those that are properly zoned wouldn’t necessarily have legal requirements for public notice or public hearings. But he said staff could further consider options sharing information about proposed projects through the neighborhood councils.

Kevin Vining, a board member, said staff would have to do the work that’s included in the board packet anyway. But Doyon and Tom Micuda, deputy planning director, said that wasn’t the case.

Staff would still review projects to ensure they meet code, but developing the board packet takes considerable time, staff said.

“Packets are above and beyond what we would do for applicants,” Micuda said, in terms of providing comments on projects.

Craig Raymond, planning director, said just getting DRB meetings scheduled can sometimes add 2-4 weeks to a project.

“We think it’s possible that some efficiencies can be realized,” Raymond said.

Staffers said if the commission approves the recommendation, they’d monitor the impact to staff time and feedback from applicants.

If commissioners decide to suspend the DRB and an applicant disputes a city staff decision, it can still be appealed to the Board of Adjustment/Appeals, as is the care currently.

Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority said his agency supports speeding the process, but in general supports DRB since they want quality development. He said it’s typically obvious which properties on 10th Avenue South went through DRB.

The difficulty for development had been that the DRB is more subjective than other boards, but “the process has gotten much better compared to what it was…in terms of the predictability,” Doney said.