Permit Ping-Pong ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

March 19, 1993

How right is the attorney who called an experimental program to speed the subdivision permit approval process a "no brainer." doesn't take a genius to see that the process would move faster if the 15 county, state and federal agencies that review development plans did so at the same time.

Nonetheless, it's only now that officials are realizing the way they're doing business -- with each agency conducting its own review and making its own demands, only to be contradicted by the next agency -- makes no sense. Officials at all three levels of government recently announced they are ready to use Russett Center, the huge Odenton development, to test the revolutionary idea that bureaucracy can be more effective if its various elements actually know what the others are doing. If it works, governments across the state will have no excuse for not changing the permit process.

The experiment is simple: During the final phase of its project, Russett will provide all the permitting agencies with detailed information about the site before it starts designing roads, storm water systems and lots. That way, if, say, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a problem with wetlands, Russett can deal with it from the start. As it is, the Army Corps and the Maryland Department of the Environment -- both of which can veto a developer's plan -- do not enter the picture until the very end. By that time, the developer has spent two years and 90 percent of his non-construction expenses -- all of which can be lost if his plan is sent back to the drawing board.

All told, it takes up to three years for a housing development to wend its way through the permit process. The longer it takes, the more it costs the developer. The delays cost the government money, too. And guess who ends up paying? The homebuyer and the taxpayer.

The only people who make money off this labyrinth are the lawyers. Ironically, it was Russett's attorney, Sharon Tucker, who suggested reforms after she found herself feeling guilty about making money off this "permit ping-pong," which for all its repetition isn't making our houses or subdivisions any better. She suspects it's possible to reduce the permit process to 14 months, without sacrificing environmental or design standards.

We suspect she's right.

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