Austin city staff outlines short-term plan to alleviate development review backlog

UPDATE: 12:20 p.m. 5/7/15

Real Estate Council of Austin, which represents developers and coinciding business ventures, released its response to the city's short-term effort to reduce the development review backlog.

In summary, RECA issued the following responses:

• All department backlogs should be eliminated within 90 days.

• RECA said it is unclear why a third-party group cannot be trained to help reduce the backlog when the city is already willing to hire temporary employees, which will also require training.

• Efforts need made to help city departments better coordinate together a short- and long-term approach to relieving the development review backlog.

Austin's notorious development review backlog could be eliminated under a new short-term plan outlined May 1 by city staff in response to a City Council request.

The multi-department effort aims to improve wait times for the site plan, subdivision, commercial and residential plan review processes related to land development and construction, according to a plan outlined in a May 1 city memo from the recently separated Development Services and Planning and Zoning departments.

"The backlog of reviews is an issue that continues to percolate with the increased volume of Austin's development activity," the memo states. "The backlog cannot be solved with existing staffing, and the approach to mitigating the backlog has been to use overtime and temporary staffing."

City staffers broke down approximate turnaround times for each development review process and revealed that review backlogs range between three to eight weeks in some areas. Commercial reviews for new construction, for example, typically take three weeks, according to the city, and residential reviews take a week. However, both processes are behind by about three weeks, according to the city, and the backlog is estimated to take three months to relieve.

Many land use reviews that require multiple department approvals are also behind and may take 90 to 120 days to remedy, according to the city. Staffers who review land uses otherwise have a 90 percent on-time record, the memo states.

The city intends on allowing existing staff to use overtime hours—in some cases, mandatory overtime to help provide short-term relief. City departments can also hire temporary staff to address certain review backlogs, the memo states.

The city considered hiring a third-party plan review services group to help reduce the backlog—and still may as a long-term solution.

"However, this option was determined infeasible for a short-term approach," the memo states. "The time required for training third parties on the Land Development Code and the contract development and procurement process for onboarding third parties would detract from the time to reduce the backlog."

The city is also working to develop online services that would allow plan reviews and permit applications to be submitted and reviewed electronically. There is also testing underway to enable online payments of permits and site plans, according to the memo.

"Once fully implemented, the new options will improve customer service and operational efficiency," the memo states.

The proposed plan to provide short-term backlog relief is still being reviewed by the Real Estate Council of Austin, according to Ward Tisdale, the advocacy group's executive director.

"We are reviewing what's been presented, and we'll have a more detailed response in the coming days," Tisdale said.

Any RECA response is expected to also address the city's plans to create a longer-term approach for reviewing development site plans and permits, Tisdale said. The City Council resolution passed in early April called on City Manager Marc Ott to develop a response to an external assessment of city procedures dubbed the Zucker Report. City staff will respond to the report 60 days after the Zucker Report is finalized, "which is imminent," according to the memo.
By Joe Lanane
Joe Lanane’s career is rooted in community journalism, having worked for a variety of Midwest-area publications before landing south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2011 as the Stillwater News-Press news editor. He arrived at Community Impact Newspaper in 2012, gaining experience as editor of the company’s second-oldest publication in Leander/Cedar Park. He eventually became Central Austin editor, covering City Hall and the urban core of the city. Lanane leveraged that experience to become Austin managing editor in 2016. He managed eight Central Texas editions from Georgetown to San Marcos. Working from company headquarters, Lanane also became heavily involved in enacting corporate-wide editorial improvements. In 2017, Lanane was promoted to executive editor, overseeing editorial operations throughout the company. The Illinois native received his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and his journalism master’s degree from Ball State University.


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