City reviewing development process
The city is reviewing its current development review process.
Christopher Gaub has just hit his first year as the public works director and Brock Cherry started as the new planning director in August.
Gaub said that both new department heads wanted to thoroughly understand the existing process and improve any identified shortcomings.
Gaub is originally from Bozeman and said during the Nov. 7 City Commission Work Session that he’s liked some of the growth there.
He spent years in the Air Force and didn’t come up in local government, he said.
Ideally, he said, he’d like to see Great Falls at a happy medium between what Bozeman used to be and Bozangelos.
“I believe change is necessary,” Gaub said.
Gaub told The Electric that the cost of development has become more expensive and the city is looking to ensure its not adding unnecessary time or cost to the process.
The city has reviewed its development review process multiple times over the last decade and made a number of changes.
Some of those changes didn’t work as intended and the city reverted back to a previous structure, such as a few years ago moving an engineer to the planning department but recently moved that position back to public works.
“Our development review process should always be looked at. Though future reviews of the process may not be as robust as what we are currently facilitating, we plan to review the process more regularly,” Gaub told The Electric.
During the Nov. 7 work session, Cherry told commissioners it’s a “complex topic,” because development review is administered through multiple departments.
Cherry said the city staff involved aren’t all in the same building and have a “bajillion” other tasks in addition to development review.
He said he believes they have the right people in the right positions to meet the current and upcoming development review demands.
Some of the process improvements under former department directors, included the permit coordinator, one person assigned to see a project through the process from beginning to end; and the one-stop shop concept with checklists for projects and permits and information available in one place.
Cherry said that it’s key to communicate expectations to developers or project applicants and have clear standards for construction.
Cherry said the city has robust preapplications for permits and land use applications, which is a significant investment by the city in development.
He said that’s staff time and salary on the part of the city in an effort to help projects be successful before any application or permit fees are paid to the city.
Cherry said he hoped commissioners realized that service provided by staff to the development community.
Cherry said that city staff have been looking at what can be improved and asking the development community for feedback.
They’re hosting a second listening session 9:30-11:30 a.m. Nov. 16 in the Gibson Room at the Civic Center.
Another step Cherry is hoping to complete to improve the development review process is the full implementation of the EnerGov software to allow for online submittals.
The city began that process several years ago, but COVID slowed process, as did employee turnover and other software troubles, which included legal action with other components of software the city had purchased during recent years.
Cherry said the planning team is learning how to use the system and he hopes to have it fully implemented by the end of the year.
He said that some of the city’s processes still revolve around single individuals and that they’re working to cross train staff and create systems that aren’t dependent on single staff members to handle.
Cherry told commissioners that they’re continuing to make internal improvements and they’re working toward better predictability within their processes.
He said staff will come back to commissioners in the spring to make a report of their findings and any recommended changes.
Cherry said they want to be able to give an applicant a timeline from time of application for review, when it would go to planning board and city commission and approved.
He said that if developers submit full and complete applications, staff wants to promise that they’ll get the review process done.
Cherry told commissioners that sometimes in trying to be development friendly, the city has babied certain projects along, investing too much staff time and energy.
Mark Juras of the city public works department said their goals are to be timely and consistent but also listen, communicate and problem solve.
After the Nov. 16 listening session, Juras said staff will be holding strategic smaller working groups through February and staff will make their report to commissioners in the spring.
He said that eight members of the development community attended the first listening session in October and that they’re hoping to get more engagement in the coming months.
Cherry said the development review process will always be tweaked and adjusted, “it will never be done and it shouldn’t,” he told commissioners.
“There’s a lot of things we’re doing right,” he said, but there’s always room for improvement.
Commissioner Joe McKenney asked if there was a way to speed up the public hearing process, such as not waiting to present to neighborhood councils before going to planning board.
The formal land use review process, which includes public notice and public hearings, is set by state law, which includes the timelines for notices before a hearing.
Cherry said in their spring report they’ll discuss what it would look like at maximum speed while meeting statutory requirements but also weighing the importance of public involvement.
He said there was a time when city residents wanted a greater say in the process, which reflected that, but it takes more time.
Due to complaints from the development community, the city eliminated the Design Review Board, which some believed was unnecessary and slowed development. Others argued it was a valuable piece of the process to ensure thoughtful project design and afforded the public another chance to comment on a project.
Cherry said the city gives lots of notice on land use actions and some could potentially be reduced, but some will see that as taking away due process.
He told commissioners that it’s not just about making the process faster, but also upholding the growth policy and zoning policies, which include public participation.