The City of Baltimore is developing a new program that city officials say will not only cut government red tape for local builders, but also will give the city a leg up on its rivals in the race for economic development.
The program, scheduled to start this month, will feature a "one-stop" Finance and Development Center that is designed to speed commercial and residential developers through the city's planning and review process.
City officials say the program finally will answer longstanding complaints among area builders that lengthy government review of development projects causes months of delay and ads hundreds of dollars to the cost of new homes.
For years, developers say those complaints have fallen on deaf ears. But as the race for economic development heats up, local governments increasingly are searching for ways to make life easier for builders in their respective jurisdictions.
Baltimore officials say their new program is particularly designed to lure suburban developers into the city who have never built there before.
"I think it will demonstrate to the development community in general that Baltimore City is taking this whole idea very seriously and wants to assist in any way it can," said David O. Hash, vice president of the Baltimore Economic Development Corp., the city's independent development arm.
The Finance and Development Center will help commercial and residential developers find their way through city agencies involved in the development review process and also will help package deals, Hash said.
"The objective is certainly to help the developer save time. Just the idea of centralizing and streamlining the whole process makes sense," he said.
The Baltimore program is similar to the District of Columbia's one-stop Business and Permit Center that opened last year. At the center, developers can get information or permits for such things as zoning, water and sewer and for a range of other tasks related to development, said Joyce McCray, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
"You used to have to go from agency to agency . . . all over the city. You don't have to do that now," McCray said. "It really has reduced the amount of time it takes to get the kinds of permits they need."
While Baltimore City appears to have come up with one of the more elaborate efforts to speed development, other area governments are searching for ways to come up with economies as well.
In Montgomery County, for example, a committee of homebuilders, government officials and agency department heads has been meeting for more than a year to map out improvements in the Montgomery planning process.
"It was useful to get that kind of dialogue," said county planning board Chairman Norman Christeller. "It got the various people together."
A report with recommendations is expected to be finished in the next few weeks, Christeller said.
The county two years ago created a committee of agency heads that meets with developers to review preliminary subdivision plans before they are considered by the full planning board.
"It's the most significant thing we've done," Christeller said. "At least he [the developer] knows what we are going to tell him when he comes before the planning board. He doesn't have to wait for the hearing to find out what's going on."
The county also allows developers to submit subdivision plans and site plans at the same time to help speed the review.
This past summer, developers in Howard County called on County Executive J. Hugh Nichols to overhaul the planning review process, citing familiar complaints about long, costly government-imposed delays.
County officials rebuffed the criticisms, but Nichols has since scheduled a series of workshops and seminars to address their concerns.
In Virginia, both Loudoun and Fairfax counties have taken steps to cut red tape, although neither has gone quite as far as Baltimore City.
To help speed development in the county's burgeoning Route 28 corridor, Loudoun officials have created a special "fast track" committee to "raise potential development questions up front" before they become problems, said June M. Bachtell, director of economic development.
The county also has formed a business park development council that specializes in the problems of projects with 10- and 15-year building schedules, and has created a blue-ribbon committee to study the development process, said Michael Congleton, Loudoun zoning administrator.
Fairfax County created a "fast-track" system for processing zoning applications in 1979, said a spokesman for the county's independent economic development authority.
So far, local governments have not made streamlining efforts a major part of their pitch for new development, but Baltimore officials intend to change that.
"We'll certainly use the center as a promotional tool," said Hash. "A lot of interest has been expressed by developers who have not developed in the city before.
"We'll make sure that they and the people that work with them, like the banking community and the professional community at large, know this system is in place," he said.