Planning commission hears proposal to streamline business permitting processes

Planning commission hears proposal to streamline business permitting processes

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Officials with the city planning department have proposed a number of ways to streamline the permitting process for small businesses looking to set up shop in Alexandria.

The initiative comes in part as a response to a number of business closures in the Port City in recent months. Several local leaders have since called for the city to become more business — and small business — friendly.

At a planning commission work session Tuesday night, Alex Dambach, the city planning department’s land use services division chief, outlined a proposal to streamline Alexandria’s special use permit process. Under the plan, the city would expand the use of administrative special use permits — a 30-day process where staff vet and approve business proposals — and reduce the number of full-hearing special use permits, which can take upwards of three months for the planning commission and city council to weigh in.

Among the changes are moves to reclassify so-called fast-casual restaurants, like Chipotle, Nando’s and District Taco, as eligible for administrative SUPs. The plan also allows restaurants to have upwards of two delivery vehicles through the administrative SUP process instead of just one, and it would reduce the minimum number of seats for delivery service from 40 to 20.

Other tweaks would allow for administrative approval of proposed child care homes for six to nine children, gyms and health clubs and storage or parking of upwards of 20 vehicles in an industrial zone.

“There’s been a lot of interest in small business, the recent closures and the small business climate, and we’re concerned about that,” Dambach said. “We’ve been paying attention to the issue, and we’re excited about some changes we want to bring forward in June.

“The main thing is to try to address some of the delays and start-up costs that can come up when a new business tries to enter and join our community.”

In addition to full-hearing special use permits requiring a longer turnaround time than administrative approvals, the costs associated in fees and filings to the city is around $575 for full-hearing reviews, compared with between $250 and $325 for administrative SUPs. And Dambach said by making fast-casual restaurants subject to administrative approval, the number of eateries receiving full hearings would reduce by 44 percent.

In addition to those changes, staff suggested making a portion of full-hearing SUPs such that the planning commission would represent final approval, not city council.

“We’re also recommending an idea where, like the planning commission has final say over subdivisions and site plans, that would also be true for non-development special use permits,” said planning director Karl Moritz. “This way there would still be the opportunity for a public hearing, and we would make sure we have heard the community and that there is public debate.

“But a lot of the hearings that we do don’t have complicated issues to deal with, and repeating planning commission hearings with city council don’t provide significant value added for the public or for the applicant.”

Moritz there are two possibilities for implementing such a strategy: changing the city charter or asking city council to delegate responsibility over these permit approvals to the planning commission, as it has already done for administrative SUPs.

“A charter amendment we would have to get from the [Virginia] General Assembly [next year], which is work,” he said. “We could maybe make it in conjunction with other charter amendments. That would be the cleanest thing to do.

“The other change would be treated like administrative SUPs, where council would delegate the authority, but we would need to set a series of specific conditions. … But if we have, for example, a restaurant, where all of the residents say they should charge for parking or something unusual, you would be constrained from doing something creative to solve those concerns.”

Bill Reagan, executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, said the proposed changes are a strong step toward making the permitting process easier, quicker and more predictable for prospective business owners. And by making some special use permits subject to administrative review, he said it could reduce costs as business owners may not feel obligated to hire an attorney to help them through the process.

“A multi-hurdled system where you go to staff and then the planning commission and then city council for approval adds uncertainty for small businesses,” Reagan said. “Allowing for more administrative approvals is much more straight forward and affordable. And even more expensive than the fees associated for business owners is the time constraints. If your permit application hits on city council’s summer break, the business owner is stuck sitting there, paying for a lease to hold onto a space for months.”

And Bittersweet owner Jody Manor, who advocated for a number of reforms to the city’s permitting process as well as business tax reforms to encourage more small businesses to move to Alexandria, was heartened by the proposals.

“I think it’s very good that it is designed for the whole city, and not just done piecemeal,” Manor said. “I think there was a time they were considering not doing this for Old Town, but Old Town needs help and needs to improve too.

“I know people who work in other jurisdictions, and Alexandria is way better on this, and the process has gotten vastly better over the years. … But you have to be nimble — the entire identity of retail is changing right now — and so it behooves Alexandria to keep getting better all the time.”