As any developer knows, one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome in the pre-job phase is gaining the approval and support of local governing organizations. Whether you are planning to develop a new commercial facility or build a new subdivision, your project will hinge on the approval of local building and planning councils.
This process can be tedious and stressful, but there are several ways to give yourself an advantage and increase the likelihood of approval. The strongest ways to enhance your chances of approval include building a local team and fostering engagement with the community where your development is planned. In addition, you will need knowledge of how the local planning council is structured and which departments need to sign off on your proposal.
Although most developers choose a location based on economic factors, it is imperative to develop strong connections with the professionals and residents who live and work in your selected community, even if you are headquartered remotely.
Professional Team Selection: Choose Local
Many developers have architects, engineers, contractors, and legal counsel they use for all projects, regardless of location. Although there are certainly benefits to working with the same team of professionals on multiple projects, you may be neglecting some of the strongest allies for gaining project approval if you do not source professional talent from the local community.
In particular, local architects and land use attorneys can be invaluable in ensuring your project gains full approval from local authorities. If your plan for a project includes rezoning or obtaining a special use permit, a local land use attorney will have excellent knowledge of how to navigate that process. They will know exactly who to contact on the planning council and can help accelerate meetings and correspondence that could otherwise drag on for weeks. Similarly, local architects will be familiar with officials in the building departments and will know the right person to submit documentation to for a speedy response. Too often we have seen project approvals held up because a proposal was submitted at the counter instead of being forwarded directly to a decision maker.
Even if you decide to use the professional team you have in place, it is a good idea to reach out to a local professional to assist with the project in a consulting role. Their familiarity with local officials and knowledge of local politics can be the difference between project approval on the first submission and a drawn-out period of correspondence with no guarantee of success.
Community Engagement: Get the People on Your Side
In an ideal scenario, your development should be profitable and of benefit to the local community. Defining “of benefit” can be a difficult task, and there will almost certainly be those in the community that oppose your project. It is important to create meaningful community engagement, so the strongest supporters of your project are the ones local officials end up hearing from, instead of the naysayers who are interested only in halting all forms of local development.
This is the point at which you need to get creative with outreach. If local officials believe their constituents overwhelmingly support a proposed project, it is much more likely to be approved.
On one recent project, an owner needed to remove several trees to make extensive repairs to the parking lot and street frontage of a commercial center at the heart of a small community. The local community reacted to the proposal to remove these trees with nearly ubiquitous resistance. Instead of challenging the community directly, ownership elected to change the narrative to bring their support to their side. They consulted with a local arborist and issued a joint press release informing citizens that although the trees were going to be removed, they would be replaced with native varieties that supported the local ecology. This approach was an effective way to garner a positive community response, and the project was not delayed.
Social media makes reaching the people who will benefit from your development easier. Previously, alerting the community to your planned development might have involved signs, a flyer campaign, or even a door-to-door approach. Now, you can reach out directly to your target audience since social media groups exist for nearly all communities, interests, and organizations.
However, social media is a double-edged sword. Savvy developers will carefully curate their reputations online to gain the best response from local groups. Regardless of the methods used to interact with the community, positive support will always help your chances of approval and may be the deciding factor in whether you are able to proceed.
When in Doubt, Go Local
Waiting for approval of your project can cast a shadow of uncertainty over your entire plan. It is important to remember that local professionals and residents are some of your strongest resources to advocate to local officials on your behalf. Alternatively, these individuals can also be some of the first to let you know if your development plan is ever likely to be approved or successful in your chosen location.
Although no one ever wants to scrap a plan entirely, it is certainly better to do so in the early stages of the project, before you make significant investments of time and capital. No matter how large or small your planned project is, it is always prudent to reach out to those with local knowledge and connections to effectively set yourself up for success.
David Jacobs is a senior project specialist with Owner Builder Advisors. His experience includes construction labor, construction risk management, and sales. Jacobs uses his background of both onsite and in-office construction work to better assist OBA clients.