The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has released average turnaround times for land-use permits showing improvement from 2010 to 2011 — a major goal of the administration in its attempts to make the state more business-friendly.
Professionals who work on development projects around the state say they have seen a difference in permit processing times and that bodes well for business in Maine.
“Once you’ve committed the money, had the engineering done, got the development plan, put the financing together, anything you can do to expedite the process saves you money,” said Steve Morris, general manager at Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol.
The shipyard had submitted an application to remove a rundown building and old marine railway and received approval within a day of receipt by the DEP. A new building and rail system will replace the old, making it easier to do maintenance work on boats.
The agency took an average of 70 days to process land-use permits in 2010, according to the DEP. In 2011, the agency had that average down to 53 days. That’s not considering “permit by rule” applications, which are smaller, easier projects generally approved within two weeks. The department receives about four times as many “permit by rule” applications as it does other, more complex requests. Adding the permit-by-rule applications in, the average turnaround time in 2010 was 24 days; in 2011, it was 22 days.
“We obviously have a renewed commitment to trying to turn these things around as fast as we can while doing what we’re supposed to do under the law to make sure these projects meet the standards,” said Mike Mullen, enforcement and compliance director in the DEP’s Division of Land Resource Regulation.
Mullen, who has been with the agency since 1983, said the DEP has taken a number of steps to effect the changes. A lot of it is the overall focus on getting permits processed quicker, either approving them or denying them. The department has developed tools for managers to better track how long an application spends in processing, with reports generated on a weekly basis, he said.
When DEP has to send an application out for review to another agency — generally the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife or the Department of Marine Resources — it is holding them to the deadline of 30 days for review, which hadn’t been done so rigidly in the past. It’s also examining exactly when it needs to send the applications out for reviews instead of sending them out automatically, Mullen said.
A big improvement has been in offering preapplication meetings to developers. In some cases, these meetings were required, but the agency has opened up such meetings to anyone who plans to submit an application. That allows state experts to work with developers and consultants to identify any potential problem areas, noting the need for more information in certain spots.
“Those preapplication meetings are just a great forum for everybody getting on the same page,” said Mullen. “If it all works out right as intended, when someone comes through the door, we’ve got a relatively straightforward process.”
There are other factors at play, too, Mullen said. Consultants submitting applications are getting more sophisticated and are making sure the projects they take on will pass muster, he said. The state also has a lot more critical resources and animal habitats identified through geographic information systems, so it’s far easier to identify projects that might pose problems for the environment.
Developers, for their part, said these improvements are welcome and noticeable, but not necessarily revolutionary.
“We’ve worked with DEP since I started the company in 1988,” said Ken Wood, president of Attar Engineering in Eliot. “I think the department has always been very responsive [to] our applications.
“I know the LePage [administration] had reorganized the department, and they are getting a quicker turnaround time,” he added.
He recently worked on a storage facility in York that doubled in size from 30,000 to 60,000 square feet. The permit was approved in 14 days, which he said was quick.
That quick turnaround time is important, he noted, because many projects have to be completed in a particular timeframe for the developer to hit a certain season. In the case of the York project, the development needed to be completed by late spring to take advantage of the heavy summer rental season, Wood said.
If the timetable for review is decreased, it will prompt more development, he suggested.
“More developers will go forward with larger projects,” said Wood, “and those larger projects are good for the state because they create construction jobs and jobs when those projects are up and running.”
Will Gartley of Gartley & Dorsky Engineering and Surveying Inc. in Camden said when applications are complete, they’re getting “pretty prompt responses.”
“Our turnaround for permits is definitely as good as it’s been in 15 years,” said Gartley.
He wondered whether part of that may be a function of the economy: Fewer permits submitted means more resources to process them. Mullen, however, said that while permit applications have been down, they were comparable from 2010 to 2011, so the numbers were valid.
He said he has been meeting with DEP officials before submitting applications for years and thought it was a good idea to expand that to other permit seekers.
“I find communication is huge. I’m not going to submit something and hope it’s going to be right,” said Gartley. “I talk to them all along, so when they get it, the answers are already there.”
Gartley said he has seen a positive change in overall communication and friendliness in the agency. That, in addition to the process changes, were welcome evolutions, he said.
“I think it just grew to a point where there wasn’t enough people paying attention to how things are being done,” said Gartley.
Pete Didisheim, senior director for advocacy at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said he has heard similar things from the agency under different administrations for years. He said the major innovations in streamlining at the DEP came during Gov. Angus King’s administration in the mid-1990s.
“Our general sense is there has been a myth about poor DEP permitting times, for at least a decade,” said Didisheim.
“Our general sense over the last decade has been that Maine’s DEP has actually compared very favorably if not better than most of the other DEP state agencies in the region. We actually are quite good and prompt.”
He said he thought it would be a mistake to see too much into the comparison of 2010 numbers to 2011 numbers.
“One big project can throw all the numbers off,” said Didisheim.
Didisheim said his big concern was that the department lost a lot of long-term staffers over the last year, some to retirement incentives, some unhappy with political rhetoric issued around the department.
“I think there’s reason to be worried looking into the future that if DEP’s budget is cut beyond where it is right now, and our general view is DEP’s budget has been cut too much over the last 10 years,” said Didisheim.
Gartley, the engineer, said he thought nothing has changed with the DEP’s overview of environmental impacts.
“They’re still looking at it pretty hard, they’re analyzing it, they want to avoid environmental impacts as much as possible — I don’t think that’s changed at all,” said Gartley.
The Gamage Shipyard project permit application, for example, originally was denied last year when the DEP asked for a second environmental study.
Noted Mullen, from the DEP: “I don’t believe that puts the environment any more at risk than before. We just have better tools, better capabilities to deal with the projects.”