Businesses should find it faster and, in some cases, cheaper, to set up shop in Prince William County under a series of changes proposed yesterday for commercial developers.

The county, concerned that high fees and lengthy waits for permits are turning away quality commercial developers, is taking steps to hasten and cheapen the approval process.

"What we'd like is for the entire commercial review process to support our economic development effort," Assistant County Executive Pierce Homer said yesterday at the Board of County Supervisors' regular meeting.

Builders of larger projects of 20,000 to 50,000 square feet--mostly office buildings--would get a break on site permit fees, paying just 20 cents per square foot, down from 60 cents.

That means a builder with a 30,000-square-foot project would pay the county $14,000 in fees, down from $18,000, Planning Director Rick Lawson said.

And planners would, for the first time, review all fees for building permits, from sewers to site plans, to make sure they're competitive with those in neighboring counties.

"It takes too long, and it costs too much," said Jana Yeates, who owns a Manassas personnel staffing firm, Employment Enterprises Inc.

"Developers want speed and economical cost."

Supervisors are likely to approve the proposed changes next month. The changes were recommended by a task force of 22 local business people and Prince William residents who, along with an outside consultant, found that the county's approval process discourages commercial development instead of attracting it.

A fast-track policy designed to bring high-tech industries to Prince William got America Online Inc. through the permitting gate in just 21 days. But until now, the county has made little effort to cut the same amount of red tape for smaller, less high-profile businesses.

In addition to trimming fees, the county is moving to cut out some administrative hurdles that result in an average 102-day wait for permits, aiming eventually to reduce the wait by half, officials said.

Some changes already have reduced approval times. A pilot program started in July allows builders of smaller commercial projects to submit plans to one official, who reviews them with the applicant. Since the start of that program, 12 of 16 builders walked out of two-hour review meeting with permits.

"An application can sit on someone's desk for a week before it's passed on to the next person," said Yeates, who chaired the task force.

The county also plans to start similar "meeting-based" reviews for more complicated building projects in a pilot program later this fall. Approvals will take far longer than two hours, but the applicant will be told where the project might fall short in a face-to-face meeting with health, building, road and sewer inspectors.

County planners also hope that improved customer service will help move builders through the system faster, "because they'll tell people what their options are and what alternatives they might have," Lawson said.

To cut out unnecessary layers of review, elaborate sketch plans will no longer be required for projects planned on fewer than five acres.