Some commonalities shared by cities and towns are the issuance of permits, management of land and parcel information, and tracking and oversight of what’s happening in the municipality. Towns and cities must be responsive and helpful to both residents and business owners to keep the community growing and thriving, but clearly each municipality manages these processes a bit differently. Some have jumped on the “automation train” with online permits and payments, while others still rely on paperwork, pushing papers/forms from one department to the next, traveling along the approval/signoff process.
What are some ways city and town land use departments can better serve residents and businesses members and what are some efficiencies to be gained?
The Permit Process
This is where the ball gets rolling, and where residents and business owners (who really should be considered customers) get their first interaction and impression of the town’s Land Use Department. And towns have two choices:
- “The Way We’ve Always Done It” – This will sound familiar. The customer enters Town Hall, searches around for any Land Use Department (Conservation, Health, Planning and Zoning, Building, etc.) and walk in. They are handed a number of colored paper applications and forms to complete and are directed to maneuver their way from one Land Use Department to another, getting all the right approvals along the way, with minimal guidance. Some departments may be in different buildings, others may be open or closed at competing times. It can be time-consuming and always results in the “waiting game” once complete.
- The Better Way—The customer goes to the municipal website and easily locates the Land Use area from drop-down menus or tabs. From here, the person can browse a library of common projects (decks, pools, sheds, home additions, etc.) to be guided electronically through the appropriate submittal forms and applications they need. Forms are completed electronically, additional plans or documents can be scanned, payments can be made online and everything can be submitted electronically. The application is then off and running through the various (and relevant) Land Use Departments, and there is no need for departments to wait on each other. What’s more, the applicant can log in at any time to view the application status, see which department is currently reviewing, can learn any issues that may arise and can learn when the permit can be picked up. This way greatly increases efficiency and reduces frustration.
In many municipalities, the way it likely works now is the land use staff is on the road and in the field, driving from one site to the next to complete walkthroughs and inspections of various projects. Assuming everything looks good, the inspectors then sign off and the process is just about finished.
- “The Way We’ve Always Done It”—The inspector arrives at work and picks up a paper listing of “today’s inspections,” likely prepared by an administrative staff, collects all the needed documents and maps out the most efficient route for the day. The customer may have an idea or estimate of when the inspector will arrive, but generally they need to be home or onsite for a good window of time to be available. The inspector works the route property by property, completing walkthroughs and inspections. They take their notes manually on paper and head back to the office, and those notes are then entered into the permit application system (if one exists). The department then proceeds to certificate issuance.
- The Better Way—All upcoming inspections are identified electronically within the Land Use software. The inspector’s electronic calendar has the whole day’s appointments listed—some have been plotted out, others have been signed up online by applicants, who now know exactly when they need to be ready. Applicants can even check online to see where they fall in the inspector’s schedule. The inspector heads out into the field with a tablet or laptop in hand, and notes/results are keyed into the web-based software in real-time. Inspectors can even email the customer a copy of their approved inspection documentation while onsite. There is no need to head back to the office or to bring paper back and forth, and no re-entering of inspection data.
This is the last stop in the permit process; the Certificate of Occupancy (CO), Certificate of Approval (CoA) or Certificate of Completion (CoC). The work is now completed and approved by the municipality according to specifications and the process is complete. Official documents are provided to the customer, and the work is recorded and logged.
- “The Way We’ve Always Done It”—The Building Inspector (or whomever was the final inspector on the relevant permit application) notifies the administrative team that the certificate can now be issued. The certificate document is created, the applicant is notified (by phone or email), and the customer must stop by the municipality to pick up the signed certificate. The assessor (if applicable) may be notified by Land Use staff if an impact to property value/adjustment exists, and the Land Use Departments then manually file the associated documentation, where it will live in a filing cabinet for the foreseeable future.
- The Better Way—The customer can check the status of the certificate directly online. An electronic copy can be downloaded or printed from home if they’d rather not make the trip to Town/City Hall. Better yet, the field inspectors may have already provided a copy while onsite. All paperwork lives electronically, sorted by property address within the Land Use software. All relevant Land Use Departments (including the assessor) have everything they need and have been notified of completions via the system’s electronic workflow.
Clearly a smooth–functioning collaboration among Land Use Departments is key for any municipality, particular those that generate revenue and interact with customers on a regular basis. A speedy application and issuance process helps keep residents, builders and commercial developers happy, and keeps completed certificates flowing in. Electronic, integrative tools are available now to help streamline, simplify and automate the process from start to finish. The most current of municipalities are starting to move on from the “we’ve always done it this way” methods to newer, more customer-friendly processes. And the results are, and will continue to be, very positive.