Portland’s permit streamlining efforts create ‘smoother path to new jobs and investment,’ business leader says

A sign declares space available in a vacant lot at the corner of Kennebec and Chestnut Streets in Portland's Bayside neighborhood.
A sign declares space available in a vacant lot at the corner of Kennebec and Chestnut Streets in Portland's Bayside neighborhood. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 28, 2013, at 12:12 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 28, 2013, at 1:35 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland city officials drew praise from the area’s top business group Wednesday as they announced the latest in a string of initiatives aimed at streamlining the city’s permitting process for developers.

The Wednesday introduction of what the city called “predevelopment office hours” was touted by Mayor Michael Brennan as a way for developers, business owners or residents to get feedback from relevant city staff members — such as health or codes inspectors, planners and historic preservation experts — early in their projects.

City officials hope the additional accessibility for preliminary feedback will eliminate potentially time-consuming and costly surprises for applicants during the subsequent permitting processes.

Along with several other streamlining initiatives recently launched — or soon to be — the predevelopment office hours program was applauded by leaders of Portland’s business community in a news release issued by the city.

“Developers want certainty,” said Chris Hall, acting CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, in a statement Wednesday. “Project costs are very substantial, and unexpected changes are burdensome. The city’s new predevelopment office hours gives business people an important new tool in the permitting process that identifies opportunities and challenges at the beginning of a project and promises a smoother, more efficient path to new jobs and investment in the city.”

During the high-profile 2011 Portland mayoral campaign — the first time since 1923 city voters elected their mayor at the polls — the city’s permitting process was a major issue for candidates, many of whom called it cumbersome and insisted an overhaul would be necessary.

Brennan, who emerged victorious from the 15-candidate field, vowed after the election to take steps to make the city friendlier to development. Just more than five months after taking office, the mayor hired Jared Clark of Government Consulting Group to spearhead a thorough review of city inspections and permitting, with a goal of speeding up the processes and encouraging business growth.

Similarly, the city retained a research team from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service last fall to conduct a study of the city’s permitting processes compared to other New England cities. That group’s report, which is expected to illustrate ways Portland can become more competitive in attracting development in the region, is due to be delivered next month.

“Improvements to the plan review process are an evolving and ongoing process,” said Portland Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine, in a statement. “Some changes may help a great deal, and others may not have as pronounced an impact. The goal is continual improvements to the process to reduce the time it takes to get permits, while at the same time delivering a high-quality service, ensuring that the public health, safety and welfare are not compromised.”

Other steps the city proposes to implement in the coming months to streamline permitting and inspections include the launch of an electronic plan review system, in which city reviewers and regulators can access plans remotely and simultaneously, instead of by passing around paper copies from office-to-office. The electronic system will also feature components accessible from mobile devices, so inspectors can enter data and complete reviews at the sites of the proposed projects, without waiting to return to their offices to fill out additional paperwork.

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