Facilitating a Policy Dialogue to Improve the Permitting Process in Delaware

CBI conducts a stakeholder assessment and facilitates a policy dialogue on the  application and permitting process for land use and development in New Castle County, Delaware.

Background and Challenges

One thousand days. This is the average application and processing time for a new development project in New Castle County (NCC), Delaware. The multi-year process has often caused friction among developers, state planning agencies, and the NCC Department of Land Use. In straitened economic times, these parties expressed a mutual interest in attracting new business opportunities and development projects to the county; all parties also valued Delaware’s quality of life and neighborhoods.

In the spring of 2009, New Castle County Executive and several private parties engaged the Delaware Public Policy Institute (DPPI) and Consensus Building Institute (CBI) to convene a policy dialogue on NCC’s application and permitting process for land use and development.

The CBI Approach

After assessing stakeholders, CBI recommended that NCC move forward with a policy dialogue. CBI then facilitated the policy dialogue and helped participants develop a set of recommendations for improving the county’s permitting process.

CBI worked with DPPI to arrange a series of focus groups and individual interviews with affected stakeholders to assess outstanding issues, concerns, and ideas. Based on these conversations, CBI was able to determine that there were enough actionable issues and interested stakeholders to merit further collaboration, and thus recommended proceeding with a policy dialogue.

The policy dialogue focused on was well attended by stakeholders representing many different interests, including the county agency, the state transportation agency, the state environmental agency, the governor’s office, and several private developers and community organizations.

During the dialogue, participants were able to discuss the issues in a structured setting as CBI facilitators led the group in understanding the ground rules, identifying individual and mutual interests, naming and prioritizing challenges, and posing possible solutions to those challenges.

As the dialogue progressed, it became clear that there were several significant barriers to efficiency in the permitting process:

  • Agency response times were uncertain and could be improved in some cases;
  • Review processes of local and state agencies could be better coordinated;
  • Multiple agency submissions and complexity of stormwater design caused delays in the stormwater review process;
  • Insufficient staffing, excess work load, and mixed-quality consulting engineering reports slowed review times.

The group developed a list of realistic solutions to the stated challenges. Participants were able to agree in whole or in part on the need for certain improvements to the process including (but not limited to):

  • Creation of an Ombudsperson role whose only charge would be to take care of issues arising from the permitting process;
  • Solicitation of feedback from the public and state agencies at an earlier stage, before the developer has gone too far in the planning process to change course;
  • Creation of tri-annual agency meetings in which state and local agency directors convene to discuss issues and bottlenecks in the permitting process.

Results

The recommendations resulting from the policy dialogue are well-received by county and state agencies, who instituted several important changes in the permitting process. 

Following the successful policy dialogue, representatives from the state and local agencies committed to take the dialogue’s recommendations into consideration. The dialogue participants were encouraged and by their ability to find common ground on key issues and pleased with the progress they had made toward a more efficient permitting process.

Based on the recommendations that came out of the dialogue, the county and the state transportation agencies instituted several changes including an improved land use review process, increased use of online, share point technology, and internal reorganization to better align reviews.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/LarryWilder