Planning commission approves permit streamlining initiative

Planning commission approves permit streamlining initiative

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

The Alexandria planning commission unanimously approved a series of measures aimed at making it easier for small businesses to open in the city, but members deferred an initiative that would remove a public hearing from the process for city councilors to consider.

Under the proposal recommended for council approval, 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 councilors to weigh in.

Among the changes are moves to reclassify so-called fast-casual restaurants, which offer counter service in addition to dine-in options, 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.

But any SUP application that requests a reduction in a business’ parking requirement still would trigger a full hearing before the planning commission and city council.

While many residents endorsed the changes to what businesses qualify for administrative approval of their use permits, several spoke out against city staff’s other proposal: preparing a charter amendment to send to the Virginia General Assembly giving the planning commission, not city council, the final authority for all “use-based” non-developmental special use permits.

“Non-use based” permits, like those governing substandard and vacant lots, requesting
modifications to the allowable height or floor-area ratio of a building and parking reductions still would require city council approval. All development SUPs also would still require council approval.

“Similar breaks were given to small businesses in the past — in 2008 and 2010 — and I supported those because I thought those were reasonable,” said Art Impastato of the Cameron Station Civic Association. “14 of the 15 proposals here I think clearly fall within that category, but one glaringly does not. … It’s pretty simple: [removing city council’s approval] takes away a basic right of the public to be able to comment on an SUP before both the planning commission and city council.

“If decisions are left only to the planning commission — an appointed, not elected — body, you would force the public to appeal decisions [to receive council review], and that is unfair and unreasonable.”

And resident Michael Hobbes questioned what benefit removing council’s final approval would have for businesses. City staff estimates that making planning commission the final authority on use-based SUPs would shorten the approval process by about two weeks.

“The burden of the SUP public hearing on applicants I believe may be considerably overstated,” Hobbes said. “[The] analysis suggests a difference of about $300 — plus or minus — in the fees for a full SUP vs. the administrative process. I would suggest that, in the overall scheme of things, that is not a significant one-time cost impact on the applicant.”

But planning commissioner Maria Wasowski noted that there are many other hidden costs associated with the per- mitting process and its length.

“The reality is very often that someone is paying rent on a space [while they await approval], because you have to rent a space well in advance of beginning the application process,” Wasowski said. “It’s a three-month process, so you’ve paid thousands of dollars a month for three months, and then you often pay a lawyer to come to planning commission and city council. What happens is then, we may not realize all of those expenses that have been incurred, but when the business finally starts up, it’s in a huge hole with huge amounts of debt because of all the time spent to get it started.”

Local business leaders lauded the changes, and urged making the planning commission the arbiter for use-based SUPs.

“The region has gotten more and more competitive, and we re- ally have been a leader in some of these changes [to streamline business permitting], but we need to continue to adapt and improve,” said Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. “I’ve heard the pushback and criticism about the planning commission being the last stop for some of these changes. But our city council has so many large issues that they need to focus their time on — land use and policy and finance and taxes — so I don’t think it’s irresponsible to delegate decisions about non-land use SUPs to the planning commission.”

And Dak Hardwick, chair-elect of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce board, framed his support through his experience in public administration.

“My question to you is: is our city council spending its time thinking about the big stuff?” Hardwick said. “Land use docket items account for about 50 percent of what city council thinks about in order to run the city. So strategic planning, housing policy, small area plans, budgets, taxes and taxation, and infrastructure all have to share time with the land use question we have here.

“What we need to do is get our council focused on the things that make the biggest impact, and let the experts focus on the planning and land use side, setting certain criteria for you to make decisions.”

But Yvonne Weight Callahan, president of the Old Town Civic Association, argued that precise shift of city council’s role means a larger discussion must be had with the community before any decision is made.

“As to the charter change, this is something I think is a lot bigger than what is being presented tonight, and it goes to the very essence of governance,” she said. “What is council to do? What are elected officials to do, and under what circumstances should members of the public be deprived the benefit of going forward and being heard by their elected officials? It’s a big question.”

Commissioners agreed that more work needs to be done on the proposal, particularly noting that an appeal process for planning commission decisions has not yet been laid out. But the board moved the proposal forward without a formal recommendation for council’s consideration.

“I’m not completely sold on this idea, and I’m not completely turned off by it,” said commissioner David Brown. “But one thing is clear in my mind: Even if I thought this was a great idea, I would not be asking my city council to surrender some of its authority to me as a planning commissioner. All I would be willing to do is move it forward for their consideration without any kind of favorable or unfavorable endorsement.”

City council will consider the changes to what falls under administrative special use permits at its public hearing Saturday. Councilors also will consider the broad implications of staff’s concept for the proposed charter amendment, but on an informal basis, so that staff has direction on how to proceed — if at all — with the proposal.