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County Government/Business Roundtable: Great Start

Step One: Focus on expediting permits for commercial, office and industrial real estate projects.

Frederick County Planning & Economic Development Offices Roundtable with Business Meeting Monday was a big day for local business in Frederick County.  Laurie Boyer, Director, Economic Development Division and Gary Hessong, Director, Division of Permitting & Development Review co-chaired a discussion group to talk about “Issues & Opportunities to Enhance Frederick County’s Business Friendly Environment.”

The meeting room in the basement conference room at 30 North Market Street, the home of the Division of Permitting and Development Review, was standing room only.

Filled with commercial real estate brokers, builders, engineers, planners and real estate attorneys from the private sector, there were also members of the county planning staff as well as planning commission members.  The private sector attendees were chomping at the bit to share their horror stories with the hosts and offer up suggestion on how the development review and permitting processes can be improved.

Gary Hessong opened with very refreshing remarks stating his desire to make his department much more business friendly.  He quickly acknowledged that there are so many areas that need improvement, that he and Laurie will reach out to Denise Jacoby at the Frederick County Builders Association, Ric Adams at the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce and other business groups to use them as resources and conduits to begin the process of improving the environment.  They proposed identifying “smaller target groups” that could meet on a “quarterly basis” to prioritize and focus on the various issues.

When he opened the floor for comments the hands flew up.  Charlie Seymour, a local commercial real estate broker, stated that he has had many experiences where he has brought in new businesses to relocate in Frederick County, but when told that getting there is a two year process to gain site plan approval, they often say “No, thanks.”

Local engineer Bill Brennan with B & R Engineering Group, LLC., stated that while he knows that it is mandatory that county staff members attend the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) meetings to review plans and proposals with applicants, more often than not many departments are not represented.  Hessong acknowledged the problem is real and stated that going forward staff needs to be held accountable.

Mark Friis, President of Rogers Consulting a Germantown based engineering and planning firm stated that now with many application fees being “very high compared to other jurisdictions,” applicants expect service, and they are often outraged that staff does not show up for these meetings.

Doug McMaster with Thompson Gas explained his frustration over the last 5 years on the process he has to go through in order “to be able to  apply for a permit” to install a 100 gallon propane tank in a commercial property.  For something that Hessong acknowledged should be a one day walk through, McMaster has had to endure a Phase V Environmental site review, produce Forest Resource Ordinance exemptions, and engineered drawings … just to be able to “apply for” a permit.

Hessong called McMaster’s experience “pretty ridiculous.”  He added that “this is a good example where we have tried to create a process in order to be predictable … and to a large extent we have eliminated the flexibility that we really need to have.”   McMaster was pleased to say that staff is now working with him to streamline the process, as they now agree that this process has gotten out of hand.

Gary Sanbower of Sanbower Builders who specializes in tenant improvements in commercial real estate buildings — retail and office space — complained about how long it takes to get a permit to fit out a unit in such properties.

Hessong stated that “it will be a priority to allow business to expand quicker … the way it is now .. It’s not good.  I’ve dealt with a number of businesses who need to move quick and in some cases [staff and I] have had to look for ‘loop-holes’ within [our] regs to be able to expedite [the permit for the applicant].”

“Our code requirements now are not sensitive to businesses that want to expand or move in.”  He said, “You know why that is? … Because you have 14 different review agencies.  That’s another ridiculous thing.  It’s crazy that we have so many people looking at a simple plan … [Along with State Highway and SCD], I can probably name eight other agencies that don’t need to look at every permit.”

Hessong continued, “The more agencies you have the less efficient you become … the more information you  submit, the more costly it is … you look back on some of this stuff and you kind of wonder how we got to where we are … it’s hard to understand!”

The message was clear to all in attendance that Hessong and his staff are ready to change the way things are done in his division.  Several applauded him for his frankness and his track record in the past for bringing streamlined processes to fruition.

Both he and Boyer acknowledged that the campaign rhetoric of the incoming board has brought a lot of this to light, and while they have known it is a problem, it is now a priority.  “We recognize that problems need to be solved at the lowest possible level … and there are a number of things that need to be put into place in order to do that … it starts with a philosophy … I can tell you that there is clearly … a commitment, a re-engagement that things are going to be different” said Hessong.

We are excited that county staff has taken the giant leap toward addressing these long needed reforms for the business community, but while we know that at least 4 out of the 5 new county commissioners are committed to this attitude, we also hope that the upper levels of the county government, namely the county manager and county attorney’s office will find their way to recognizing their responsibility in this reform.

** Follow up note:  On November 24th Laurie Boyer sent out a complete list of all the comments from the meeting.  To view, click on  Summary of issues discussed at County-Business Roundtable Forum 11-22-10.

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