County commissioners hear another update on issue they designated one of their priorities this year
Sarasota County’s Planning and Development Services Department staff is continuing to fine-tune protocols to streamline the permitting process for applicants, the department director, Matt Osterhoudt, told the county commissioners on July 13.
Improving the process is one of the board’s top priorities for this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2020, a July 13 staff memo pointed out.
“Sarasota County is a fast-growing community with a thriving real estate development industry,” the memo explained, “As an indicator of a healthy building climate,” it continued, “overall permitting activity in the County grew to more than 41,000 permits in [the 2020 fiscal year] and has sustained this level of permitting for more than three years.”
In an effort “to meet record high service demands for permitting activity,” the memo added, staff continually is working to improve “service delivery to address and satisfy customer expectations.”
Following Osterhoudt’s April 21 presentation to the commissioners about steps staff had taken, the memo continued, leaders of various departments conducted a review of development processes. “The team conducted internal and external stakeholder focus groups to document potential external process changes,” the memo pointed out. The external stakeholder group included 30 “industry members representing developers, land use and planning consultants, and engineers,” it said.
A report provided to the commissioners in advance of the July 13 meeting summed up the information staff had received and included a list of proposals for further evaluation and implementation, the memo added.
Among the latest changes, Osterhoudt told the commissioners on July 13, staff has created written expectations for the Planning and Development staff that focuses on “how quickly we do reviews,” as well as how fast staff members should call individuals back to discuss issues and how staff works through those issues. This has just been adopted in his department, he added. The next step is to ensure that this is a county administrative directive “so it’s applicable to all departments that are involved in the development review process.”
Additionally, he said, every Monday, the senior leaders of all the departments or divisions involved in permit reviews get email updates on the status of applications, so they can learn whether any of their staff members are running behind in completing reviews.
Those emails include updates on the number of days a reviewer in a senior leader’s department has to complete the analysis of a specific application. For example, Osterhoudt said, the email might point out, “Reviewer Smith, you’ve got five days, 10 days left on your clock.”
Those emails also serve as a means for him, the ombudsman or a department manager to track the reviewers’ work, Osterhoudt explained.
Further, monthly meetings are conducted with representatives from Planning and Development, as well as the Emergency Management, Public Utilities and Public Works departments, and County Administration, Osterhoudt noted. Problem solving is the goal of those sessions, he pointed out.
Additionally, he reminded the commissioners, he told them in April that he had designated a development liaison, or ombudsman, whose role has been designed to “help facilitate and coordinate issues that get stuck and help expedite things that [need to] get expedited.”
He again identified that individual as Dennis Medved.
“One thing that’s really important,” Osterhoudt continued, is creating a core Development Review Coordination Team that will include decision makers from departments. When meeting with applicants, he continued, those senior staff makers “can be very clear” about what is required. That core team also would have the ability to solve issues “right on the spot.”
For example, he said, the zoning administrator has the authority to make a determination about a zoning issue raised in an application.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger commended Osterhoudt for that improvement. “I think that’s a great thing,” Cutsinger said.
Further, Osterhoudt talked about the fact that, in the past, commissioners no doubt heard reports of fourth or fifth requests for additional information regarding applications.
Under the new protocols, he said, if a second request for applicant responses is necessary, senior intervention is required to resolve outstanding issues, “rather than going to a third submittal, fourth submittal and beyond.” A pause is being built in after the second request, he emphasized.
Moreover, Osterhoudt pointed out, if a staff member missed something on the first review, a senior employee in the applicable department must determine “whether or not that comment can be included or not.”
He also noted that a staff member with a question about a facet of an application has to be able to cite the relevant portion of the County Code.
Another new step, he indicated, regards a situation in which, upon first review of the materials, a staff member sees problems with an application that might lead to delay in approval. That employee is to notify the appropriate manager, Osterhoudt said. Then, before a request for more information goes out to the applicant, Osterhoudt noted, someone on staff will call the applicant to talk about the specific issue, to try to resolve it quickly.
“I think that also is a worthy effort,” Commissioner Cutsinger told him.
The May report that the July 13 staff memo referenced also explained, “During internal stakeholder meetings, reviewers referenced incomplete applications as a common occurrence in the submittal process. In the best interest of all applications, it is important to conduct a completeness check of an application before resources are dedicated to review and a review due date is set. Going forward an incomplete application should not receive a permit number until all documents necessary for review are submitted in the case of a new submittal and [requests for additional information] are addressed for resubmittals. To aid applicants in this process, updated checklists of documentation are needed to outline critical pieces of information.”
Yet another new protocol, Osterhoudt explained, calls for the ombudsman to complete an after-action report that can detail problems that arose with the review of an application and then offer recommendations for improving the process.
He and his staff also are proposing that the County Commission amend the County Code to allow applicants who need to hold Neighborhood Workshops to have the option of conducting those virtually, as they did during most of the pandemic.
With the chat option available during Zoom sessions, he indicated, participants seemed to feel more engaged in those presentations and discussions.
Questions and comments
After Osterhoudt talked about the Neighborhood Workshops, Commissioner Nancy Detert brought up an issue that a speaker had raised during the Open to the Public portion of the board’s afternoon session — before Osterhoudt made his remarks.
She indicated concern that the County Code calls for notification of property owners who live only within 750 feet of the location of a proposed project or land-use change.
That has “always bothered me,” Detert added. “Where did we come up with that? … This is like written by people in the inner city.”
She added that, in the county, the 750-foot radius might encompass only three people, whereas another 200 might live 800 feet away from the relevant site.
During the Open to the Public period, Robert Luckner, a director of the Siesta Key Association, pointed out that the leaders of that nonprofit believe that when a proposal for a land-use change could affect individuals countywide, the notifications should go out countywide.
Osterhoudt reminded Detert that staff prepared a report a couple of years ago about the 750-foot standard. The document included information about how other jurisdictions handle the issue, along with details about actions that are considered best practices. Typically, he added, 750 feet is the figure local governments use.
He told her he would make certain to send her another copy of that report.
Moreover, Osterhoudt said, staff would add her suggestion for a wider radius to its list of potential amendments to the Unified Development Code (UDC). September will be the next month when staff opens up a cycle for consideration of new UDC amendments, he pointed out.
The UDC contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations.
“All right,” Detert told Osterhoudt in response to the UDC suggestion. “I will try to make a note of that.”
He told her he already had done so.
Then Chair Alan Maio asked whether he recalled correctly that “if there’s a subdivision next door” to the site where a land-use change has been proposed, all the residents are alerted.
“Correct,” Osterhoudt replied: A notice goes out to the homeowners association or the property management group.
Then, in regard to the Siesta Key Association leaders, Maio asked, “Is there a vehicle that they get notified?”
“We can always make that a protocol, too,” Osterhoudt responded.
Maio added that he also seemed to recall that, at one time, staff had created a list of “interested parties,” such as Chambers of Commerce and land-use attorneys, to which the Planning and Development staff routinely sent notifications.
That is correct, too, Osterhoudt said.
Commissioner Cutsinger then asked whether he remembered accurately that Planning and Development had created new signage that is posted at sites where applicants want to make changes.
That is correct, as well, Osterhoudt responded. The yellow signs staff used to erect were not easy to read, he continued. The new signs have links on them that take interested persons directly to documents on the county website about the proposed changes. That is true even with Coastal Setback Variance applications, Osterhoudt added. The links are available through QR codes on the signs.
If a person needs more information, a phone number is provided on the county webpage for the individual to use in calling a county staff member, Osterhoudt added.
“We kind of forget how busy things are right now,” Cutsinger pointed out, noting County Administrator Jonathan Lewis’ recent updates that staff likely will handle a record number of permits this year.
When Chair Maio asked about the potential of the figure reaching 50,000 by the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year — plus 90,000 inspections — Osterhoudt told him the latter number likely would be even higher.
Staff is continuing to go through each facet of the May report produced after the internal and external stakeholder group meetings, Osterhoudt continued, to determine how best to address other issues.
Then County Administrator Lewis pointed out to the board members that Planning and Development is “only a piece of the puzzle.” The directors of the Public Utilities, Public Works and Emergency Services departments, Lewis noted, “are critical cogs” in the process. Their diligence also is necessary to ensure staff meets the benchmarks “that we’re looking for,” Lewis said.
Osterhoudt told the board members he would continue to update them regularly on staff’s progress.