The key to permitting and continued development in Maryland? Relationships.

Due to the number of agencies and lengthy timelines involved in approving a permit, people and organizations seeking a permit in the state of Maryland experience unique and complex challenges in this process. Allyson Dematteo, Project Manager in Atwell’s Annapolis office, offers her expertise on this process as it relates to Anne Arundel County and the City of Annapolis, shares what she considers a major roadblock, and gives her advice for developers to get ahead of challenges.

Working as a Design Engineer for more than 21 years in Maryland and the greater Annapolis region has repeatedly reinforced the value of relationships in a successful permitting process. Many states across the country don’t face the complexities we must move through when seeking permits for our clients in Maryland. It is a time-consuming process, and like many industries, it has been greatly impacted by the changes in working routines after the COVID pandemic. Despite an encouraged return to office and using technology to assist in creating connections when working remotely, we still face delays. What am I referring to, specifically? Let’s dive in.

Permitting process and challenges at various municipal levels

There are multiple levels of permitting, and depending on the project, a city, county, state, and federal permit could all be required. Each county has their own process that is unique and different, but all follow the same common theme of being time consuming and expensive to a developer.

Starting at the county level, a three-phase review process is required. Due to size, redevelopment, and project type, certain projects can have a reduced number of phases; however, any major development proposal will follow the three-step process. For major developments, the first phase is a preliminary or sketch plan. The second phase is a final development plan, and the third phase is the permits (i.e., grading and building permits). The three-phase review cycle was created by Maryland as part of the 2007 SWM regulations and is required of the various counties and jurisdictions for implementation in the state.

For Anne Arundel County in particular, each phase includes multiple steps, and there are multiple sub-agencies within the main county agency that must give approval–approximately 22 in total. Depending on the complexity, size, and natural features on the property, the three-phase process may need multiple resubmittals to get the approval of the agencies, making this process very time consuming for a developer or landowner.

For a larger developer, this process may come as no surprise and simply be par for the course. That developer is more likely to weather the lengthy time and have the financial capability for the process, with greater insight into the process overall. But for smaller developments, particularly those that are being done by individuals, they don’t always know or understand the government rules and regulations.

New challenges with the rise of remote work and demographics

In addition to the timeline, the biggest challenges we continue to face in development permitting is communication and the loss of relationships with review staff. COVID has made both communication and relationship-building more challenging because a lot of people are working from home. In the past, I used to go over to the county offices, bring my plans along, and review them right there. A lot of issues would be resolved that way, especially in the preliminary plan phase. Now, unfortunately, we can’t just pop over and have that same discussion.

Another perk that came with building these relationships in-person was having people who could vouch for you and your work. When I was a young engineer submitting a plan, it was difficult to get a rapid response because no one knew who I was. Those relationships had not yet been established. My boss would then call the reviewer, and because my boss knew the reviewer, that feedback would be addressed in minutes rather than days.

Relationship building is a possible solution

Ultimately, I think the solution to these challenges is in relationships – inside and outside of the permitting process.

If developers want to come into this region and maximize their development potential on a property, building relationships with the local elected officials, government agencies, and local community members is essential. Because of social media and video conferencing, landowners and community groups now have a bigger voice than ever before. One of the positives that did come out of the pandemic is the ability and ease of virtual meetings. This allows us to continue improving communications to stay connected and keep our clients informed.

In my opinion, developers who can be creative and work with the public while still maximizing their development potential will be successful. Working with an engineering firm like Atwell can be the difference between a lengthy, drawn-out process with people less experienced in Maryland’s permitting process, versus Atwell’s team of experts who have been in the area for decades and know what to look for. From surveying to development, our team members have the education, insight, knowledge, and experience that’s required for developers of any size to keep their projects moving forward.

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