Permitting work continuing to increase significantly, Planning and Development Services director tells commissioners
At the same time Sarasota County’s Planning and Development Services Department staff has been contending with potentially record-setting numbers of permits, staff also has been working to streamline the review process, which is one of the County Commission’s top priorities for this year.
To that end, Matt Osterhoudt, director of Planning and Development, talked with the commissioners on April 21 about his having appointed an ombudsman — or development liaison — in the department. That person will be able to act on Osterhoudt’s behalf to facilitate the timely completion of reviews.
“This is a new position for Sarasota County,” Osterhoudt pointed out. “We just have problems sometimes when things get — I’m going to use the word ‘stuck.’” Complicated applications can lead to such situations, he noted. Moreover, given the fact that multiple departments work with numerous applicants and agents for applicants, Osterhoudt continued, processes on occasion do get bogged down.
“The heart of [resolving such issues],” he said, “is communication. This [ombudsman] can help things get unstuck” by meeting with applicants and staff members.
Osterhoudt talked of the concern he feels whenever he hears an application is “stuck in a fourth review.” The expectation, he added, is that a member of the public should be able to get information from staff about problems that must be addressed, and then the applicant can provide a revised plan that will gain staff approval.
”Maybe you have a second round [of comments and revisions],” Osterhoudt said. After that, he told the commissioners, the application should be approved. If not, he added, “Then there should be immediate attention to that” from the highest level of the department.
However, Osterhoudt did explain that he was describing a scenario in which an applicant has presented a revised plan that complies with all the applicable county policies and regulations.
He wants to ensure that staff comments are “easy to understand,” he continued. “If the plan comes back in and addresses all those things, we should be done.”
Further, Osterhoudt noted, “We do have high-profile projects that come through our system that I personally want [the ombudsman] to track … and make sure they don’t get stuck.”
Osterhoudt said he would provide the ombudsman guidance on such initiatives.
Additionally, the ombudsman is to take an in-depth look at the permitting system and review county ordinances from the user’s perspective, Osterhoudt pointed out, with the potential for suggesting improvements.
Yet another role the employee will play, Osterhoudt continued, will be serving as the person to whom members of the public can be directed when they have questions or problems and do not know where to turn.
Commissioner Michael Moran asked whether the ombudsman would have the authority, for example, to “grab [an application] off the desk [of a reviewer, where it has been sitting for days], and approve it, or tell that [reviewer] that it better be on [the ombudsman’s] desk at 3 o’clock tomorrow?”
The ombudsman will not have the authority to take such a step, Osterhoudt responded. Only certain department leaders have the lawful authority, under the provisions of the Florida Statutes, to approve permits, he added.
The commissioners should explore the idea of allowing permits to be approved when staff fails to meet county timelines, Moran said, characterizing that stance as “healthy pressure” on employees to adhere to what Moran called a “hard, hard deadline …”
As the director of the department, Osterhoudt explained, he can tell the ombudsman that a project appears to be stuck and ask the ombudsman to resolve whatever issues have created the situation. “It might involve other directors,” Osterhoudt noted, which would necessitate Osterhoudt’s speaking with that director.
Moran acknowledged that county policies and regulations do not allow commissioners to provide direction to staff. The board members can tell only the county administrator and the county attorney to take specific actions.
Nonetheless, Moran said, an employee who delays a project should “be written up. That’s [a Human Resources Department] issue.”
During his remarks, Osterhoudt did identify Dennis Medved as the ombudsman.
County Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader that Medved has held the position for approximately three months. Medved originally was hired in 2018 as a land development reviewer, Winchester added.
Further, as noted in early April, Michele Norton, who had served as manager of the county’s Planning and Zoning Division, has been designated the new assistant director of Planning and Development, Osterhoudt reminded the commissioners.
The previous day, the commissioners approved funding for the reorganization of Planning and Development, along with the hiring of a dozen extra full-time employees. (See the related article in this issue.)
More attention on timing
“Something that gets a lot of attention,” Osterhoudt said on April 21, is “How fast can we get a review done” and a permit issued?
As of March, Osterhoudt noted, 85% of staff member reviews were completed on time.
A slide he showed the board noted the lowest mark for timeliness in regard to site development permits was accorded to Planning Division staff in March: 89%. For another example, the Historical Resources staff review was on time in 90% of situations, the chart noted.
Another graphic made it clear that the primary focus of delays in the completion of reviews of single-family home building plans has involved the review of construction documents. However, the graphic showed the delays had become shorter from October 2020 through March.
In contrast, the same graphic indicated that the drainage, tree review and public utilities aspects of the plans were completed on time each of those months.
Osterhoudt also explained that staff had conducted roundtable meetings with engineers, consultants and developers as he and others worked to improve the permitting process.
“What I’m hearing the most,” he told the commissioners, is that the greatest focus for improvement should be the county’s Development Review Coordination (DRC) process, through which representatives of various departments are tasked with taking a thorough look at an application to determine what the individual or group that submitted it needs to do to obtain county approval.
His recommendation, Osterhoudt added, is to analyze the DRC situation to determine how to resolve problems.
Complaints to commissioners
“By far,” Commissioner Moran told Osterhoudt, the largest number of complaints he hears are related to permitting.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the commissioners that permitting “is actually the area the I would expect you all to get the most complaints. … This is complicated,” Lewis added of the process.
His and Osterhoudt’s goal, Lewis continued, is to ensure that staff members have sufficient training to provide the most accurate comments on applications, to help facilitate the timely issuance of permits. “And I think over the past three years I’ve been with Matt … we really have moved heaven and earth on the timelines.”
Like Moran, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, the newest board member, said permitting is the top issue about which he hears complaints. However, Cutsinger pointed out, the pace of construction in the county is at what he believes to be an historically high level.
“What I’ve heard is that … what [members of the public] want is answers fast,” Moran said. “They’re not asking for a ‘Yes’ answer fast,” Moran added, but a fast “No,” as well.
“I do understand how important it is to get an answer quickly, because you’re trying to build,” Cutsinger added.
Having been involved in both commercial and residential construction projects himself, Cutsinger said, he believes staff needs discretion to handle certain issues on-site. “The reality on the ground is different than if you’re looking at a [building] code book.”
However, Osterhoudt explained, each of the Planning and Development Services leaders has been delegated the authority to make final decisions. Nonetheless, Osterhoudt continued, staff has created processes to ensure that employees can talk easily with those decision makers.
Cutsinger added that one of the complaints he commonly hears is that staff is adversarial. “It becomes challenging to folks dealing with issues because they feel like they’re … fighting against the system … I’ve had a number of people reflect this to me.”
Trends and metrics
In an April 20 memo to the County Commission, Osterhoudt noted that the overall number of county permits issued grew to more than 41,000 in the 2020 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2020. The county has sustained such a high level “for more than three years,” the memo pointed out.
“You can see the growth coming,” especially in the eastern and southern portions of the county, Commissioner Moran told Osterhoudt at one point on April 21.
During his presentation, Osterhoudt showed the board members a series of slides to illustrate how busy Planning and Development (PDS) staff has been:
- The total number of permits the county issued through March, since the 2021 fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 2020, is up 8% — to more than 21,000 — compared to the same period during the 2019 fiscal year. A bar graph listed the exact figure as 21,310, compared to 19,741 from Oct. 1, 2019 through March 2020.
- The number of permits for construction of single-family homes has increased 54% for the fiscal year to-date; through March, that figure was 1,538, compared to 996 for the same portion of the 2020 fiscal year. “We’re running the highest we’ve had” over the past five years, Osterhoudt emphasized. The figure for the 2005 fiscal year — before the Great Recession began — was 2,152, he noted. The total for the 2019 fiscal year was 1,954. “We’re tracking significantly higher [this fiscal year].”
- The number of permits for applications filed online is up 42% for the fiscal year to-date — more than 17,750.
- The number of building plan reviews has increased 17% for the fiscal year to-date — more than 18,000.
- The number of inspections performed by the Building Department’s Inspections unit staff has climbed 5% for the fiscal year to-date — more than 76,500.