Prince William County is today the fastest-growing jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan area, and its Board of County Supervisors is looking for ways to improve its handling of the flood of development applications that growth is bringing.
A consultant's report made public this week contains two major recommendations on how to speed the review of development plans, namely that county staff weed out poorly designed or incomplete plans and that the county improve coordination among the agencies that review those plans.
To achieve this, the Bethesda-based management consulting firm of Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc. recommended the county set up an interagency task force to tackle communications problems among agencies. Then, the Department of Development Administration (DDA), which handles development applications in Prince William, should institute a quality-control program to monitor submitted plans, the consultant said.
Although some supervisors may have been seeking quick solutions, such as abolishing some jobs or hiring more staff, the consultant instead offered a framework for improving the way the county runs its bureaucracy.
Pressed by Supervisor Guy Anthony Guiffre to rate the county's review process, Tom Shaffer, a principal at Booz, Allen, said it generally "is going okay." But Shaffer hastened to add that if the county fails to tackle some existing problems, they could become "a major stumbling block" in the future.
For example, Booz Allen found that far too many plans must be submitted three or more times before they win approval, a costly and time-consuming process both for county staff and for developers. In 1984, 55 percent of the 80 final site plans submitted and 37 percent of the 79 final subdivision plans submitted underwent three or more reviews, the consultants found.
The county's goal is to complete the process in two review cycles. The average review time of 141 days for final site plans and 187 for final subdivision plans, however, compares favorably with review periods in Fairfax County, the consultant added.
Given the huge growth predicted for the county, lengthy review cycles could impede orderly growth, the consultant warned.
Figures prepared by the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments show that Prince William's population grew 22.3 percent between 1980 and 1985, to 177,000. Building-permit activity over the same period increased 67.6 percent. By the year 2000, an 82.4 increase in the county's population is predicted, second only to that of Loudoun County.
To meet this growth, Booz Allen urged the county to put reform of the development review process "at the top of the county agenda."
The Board of County Supervisors, however, is making no hurried decisions. Discussion of the report at Tuesday's board meeting was limited, and no date has been set for further consideration.
Fleshing out the primary recommendations Tuesday, project manager Joanne S. Wyman said the first job for the interagency task force would be to draw up standard information that must be on all plans submitted for county approval. Confusion among developers and county staff over what details are required partially accounts for the submission of incomplete plans, which then bog down the review process, Wyman said.
Once these standards are in place, staffers in a new quality-control program at DDA would use this checklist to review plans submitted for accuracy and completeness, the report said.
Of the report's eight major recommendations, the interagency task force and quality-control program are "among the most important initiatives which will give the greatest benefit," Wyman said in presenting her company's study to the Prince William board Tuesday.
Other recommendations in the report call for: The county executive to form a development coordinating committee, where members of the development community and county agencies would discuss existing problems and identify future ones. DDA and the Office of Planning to improve their record management systems and prepare annual operating plans that clearly set out each agency's goals. Both agencies also should sit on the interagency task force and the development coordinating committee. DDA to reorganize its plan review staff based on the type of project, rather than location. This would allow staff to develop the expertise needed to handle the increasingly complex types of developments that an urban community attracts. The Board of County Supervisors to urge the Department of Highways and Transportation, the school board and the Prince William County Service Authority to speed up their technical reviews. Delays in these agencies are major reasons for the lengthy plan review process, the report said.
Responding to the report, Michael Sorenson, president of the Prince William County Builders Association, said he was disappointed it gave few specific proposals, but added that he welcomed a chance to sit on committees with county officials to thrash out solutions to delays.
The chief executive officer of the Northern Virginia Builders Association, Samuel Finz, said his primary concern is that the report will sit on a shelf and gather dust, and that he hopes the staff will show the leadership needed to make changes.
DDA Director Martin E. Crahan already is at work. To implement all the recommendations, however, he said he'll need extra staff. Anticipating the report, Crahan in April asked the board to authorize 18 more positions for DDA, which would bring his staff up to 103. The board postponed that request to see what Booz, Allen had to say.
But the consultant has shied away from making specific staffing recommendations, saying that it is the board's responsibility to decide how best to use its resources. The only suggestions it made were for a senior engineer to head the quality-control program and one person to manage records full-time.
Extra staff probably will be a contentious issue among the supervisors.
"I'm a little bit concerned that we're talking about a vast number of new people and stretching out the process further," said Supervisor Edwin C. King at Tuesday's meeting.
The proposal to set up two new committees also received a lukewarm reception from some supervisors. Board Chairman G. Richard Pfitzner complained that he already has a hard enough time catching department heads.
"We never find any of these people in their office. It's kind of like when we were in high school: Everyone was always spending the night with someone else," Pfitzner said.