To attract more quality businesses, Prince William needs to streamline the approval process for commercial development to make it quicker and cheaper, according to a task force study presented yesterday to the Board of County Supervisors.

Pleased with the success of the fast-track policy that ushered America Online Inc. into the county, and eager to lure more industries across the board, the commercial development task force recommended lowering fees and cutting red tape on the county's review process. The improvements, the citizen task force says, will lessen growing pains for companies expanding within the county and make Prince William more competitive with the rest of Northern Virginia for new business.

"The basic process is a good one--it just needs fine-tuning," said Miles Friedman, chairman of the economic development council, under which the task force operates. But the suggestions would go toward "making the [review] process more predictable, giving people more upfront notice about what to expect," he said.

Task force members stress that these changes won't open the floodgates on commercial growth. Rather, they say, approved businesses will move more easily from conception to implementation. Ideally, Prince William would have a better chance at luring quality businesses.

"If you say to the world, 'Well, we're upgrading our commercial development review process,' companies notice that," Friedman said.

The task force, made up of 22 local business people and citizens along with an independent consultant, was formed this spring and surveyed builders, businesses and county staff. It found that the county takes more than three months, on average, to review and approve site plans for commercial enterprises that want to locate here--making it slower than the combined average of eight comparison counties. It also reported that Prince William's high fees may discourage some developers from locating here.

Although the study concludes that the review process in Prince William "is not broken," it suggests that the regulations could be made clearer and more consistent.

Companies in certain industries such as technology and bio-research currently can take advantage of a quicker permit process than other types of business because the county has targeted them as particularly desirable. A new approach could lessen the time burden on all types of businesses.

"It's more about achieving consistency in the review process," said Pierce Homer, assistant county executive. "There are numerous examples where the county does an excellent job of providing a fast-track review process for targeted industries, and I think the efforts of the task force are designed to make that more broadly available."

Prince William now must study the specific recommendations, Homer said. The task force recommended meeting again in six to 12 months to evaluate the county's progress.