By Deborah Lynn Blumberg
For cities, the process of navigating development projects can be fraught with friction.
Hazy timelines, inefficient systems for applying for permits, and sometimes significant project delays when plans have to be tweaked can frustrate developers and city officials alike. Residents often feel slighted, too, if a planned development looks like it might increase neighborhood traffic or eliminate nearby green space.
To smooth out the process, the City of Ramsey developed the Path-to-Yes program. This innovative program helps the city more efficiently shepherd a development project from its initial stages to completion, while letting residents voice their concerns.
The program, which streamlines the development process, is fostering collaboration between city staff and developers, while providing an inviting environment for growth and meeting residents’ goals and needs.
“There’s a natural tension between development and existing neighbors, and we’re trying to ease that tension before the die is cast and things can’t be changed,” says Kurt Ulrich, who recently retired as Ramsey’s city administrator. “We wanted to create a friendly, more collaborative environment. With our approach, if you spend more time on the front end, in the end it benefits everybody.”
A people-first approach
Established in 2019, Ramsey’s Path-to- Yes program takes a people-first, collaborative approach. It’s designed around the customer experience. Staff are encouraged to see the entire development process through an applicant’s lens and always be problem solvers.
Early, clear communication with developers is paramount. The development process in Ramsey now starts with an initial concept meeting with a developer. Multiple city departments, including planning and engineering, join in on the meeting and all in attendance talk candidly about the project, the developer’s goals, and the city’s goals.
“We want to be open and honest with our communication up front,” says Brian Hagen, the city’s deputy city administrator and community development director, “and this helps us all to be on the same page. The program has provided us with an opportunity for the city to be very responsive.”
Ramsey Senior Planner Chris Anderson adds that the key is to remove project uncertainties. “It’s been very helpful to have these pre-application meetings,” he says.
Next, the developer takes insight from the initial meeting and uses it to develop their initial plan. The developer then submits their concept plan, and feed-back is generated during a development review committee meeting with more departments in attendance.
Finally, the developer creates a detailed site plan. It’s a collaborative, back-and-forth process.
“This new approach allows us to greatly reduce any missteps during the process,” Ulrich says. “As a community, we have a stake in this process and want to see you as a developer be a success, and we have an obligation to our residents, too.”
Vetting the developer’s plan
The developer then submits their plan to the city through a new electronic review system. Previously, developers had to submit hard copies. Creating a digital system and embracing technology has made the process much more efficient and helped keep the system moving throughout the pandemic, says Ulrich.
“Before, our system was overly inefficient,” he says, with couriers lugging multiple bundles of documents into city hall. “Our new system has totally revolutionized how we do development review.”
City stakeholders mark up the documents digitally, and the developer can make changes before the plan goes to the Planning Commission. At this point, Ramsey officials also actively seek out community comments.
For many projects, the city will hold open houses, where residents can meet the developer and ask them questions directly. City officials attend, but don’t moderate the meeting. For much of the pandemic, these meetings have been virtual, and speakers are asked to turn on their camera and state their name and address.
“This approach provides a great opportunity for our residents to have a conversation with project representatives, rather than having to go up to a podium in a formal setting,” says Anderson. “It’s been working really well.”
To keep residents informed, the city also posts project details and updates about changes and open houses on its website, via social media, on its You- Tube channel, and in the city newsletter for residents.
Plans then typically go before the city’s Environmental Policy Board and the Parks and Recreation Commission for their review. Then the Planning Commission will hold formal public hearings where the public can give input. If a plan gets the green light from all three boards, next it heads to City Council for a vote.
Throughout the process, the city slots in a regular weekly meeting on the calendar for each development project in the works. This gives developers dedicated time to have questions answered and respond to requests or feedback from the city or residents.
A competitive advantage
Ramsey’s program has been well-received by developers because it gives them certainty. The development process is clear and laid out up front. It also provides specific metrics for the number of days it takes to review a project, leaving little room for doubt.
For plan review, that number is 60 days. “Then the developer knows the time frame so they can plan accordingly,” Ulrich says.
Developers can rest assured that projects will run as smoothly as possible and that they won’t face major delays or hiccups, helping them to reduce their overall risk, save money, and better plan out their portfolio of projects. The program gives Ramsey a competitive advantage by making Ramsey a welcoming place to do business.
“It’s definitely seen as a benefit,” Hagen says.
Ramsey’s new ePermits and electronic plan review have reduced the plan review time by 50%. And technology like Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms makes it more convenient for all to join meetings, helping to avoid scheduling issues and long, unnecessary commutes.
“All of this also really helped us tremendously when the pandemic hit,” Ulrich says.
Staff are allowed to have flexible schedules to accommodate this people- first approach and to better facilitate the path to yes. City workers are also encouraged to be open-minded and flexible to adapt to current market trends and unusual circumstances for the good of Ramsey. For example, if a project advances the city’s vision and meets its requirements, staff are empowered to find the most efficient path to yes.
Listening to residents
The Path-to-Yes program has already paid off for dozens of projects, including a recent large residential development called Riverstone South.
Ramsey residents had the chance to voice concerns about the project, and they weren’t happy about plans for a new road connection that would give a second way to access the new neighborhood. Residents thought the new connection would add to traffic to what was an otherwise calm street.
Ultimately, the city and developer listened to residents and removed the road connection from the development plan. “The residents felt they had their voices heard,” Anderson says.
In this same project, residents spoke up about wanting to see more nearby forest land preserved. In the end, a seven-acre plot of land was preserved, leaving a good-sized buffer between the development and the community.
“We were able to realize that need upfront before there was a detailed design, so the developer could design around the forest preserve,” Ulrich says.
Flexibility is key
For other cities that are looking to improve their development planning process, Hagen says to be flexible. “There’s pre-COVID and post-COVID,” he says. Ramsey made the choice to keep its Zoom meetings in place for added flexibility, and that will continue.
“It just doesn’t make sense for a developer to drive an hour-plus to meet with us,” he says. “We can accomplish a lot via Zoom and screen sharing.”
He also recommends city administrators first get organization-wide buy-in for this type of people-first approach and program. Some colleagues may resist change at first, but with education, they may warm up to the idea.
“Everybody working hand-in-hand ultimately makes a project go smoother on both the review side and the developer side,” says Anderson.
Then, continue to monitor your program. “You should always assess how it’s going and get feedback from the developers,” Hagen says.
In surveys the city has sent out, the program has gotten high marks from developers.
“They say, ‘You’re one of the best cities to work with. You know what you’re getting into,’” when you work with Ramsey, Ulrich says.
Deborah Lynn Blumberg is a freelance writer.