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Permit speed under review

LAWRENCEVILLE - If time is money, Gwinnett County wants to help builders and developers save both.

In coming months, it will explore ways to speed up its process for issuing permits that let developers and builders clear land and erect everything from shopping centers and subdivisions to offices and warehouses.

Kathy Holland, who oversees the county Development Division, said an outside consultant will be hired to study the current process and make recommendations.

"We want to do a good job and be a county that other people try to imitate, so we are open to any suggestion to help make the process better," Holland said. "It would help us and help the development community."

Before developers clear land and begin installing streets and drainage pipes, they must submit several plans to the county. After the plans are reviewed, the county issues a development permit.

A second permit is required before any buildings are constructed.

The turnaround time for development permits is 14 days, although some occasionally take longer, Holland said.

Overall, the performance review will ensure the process is streamlined and efficient, she said.

One possibility, Holland said, is the county could outsource some of the work.

However, if the county does hire a private company to help review development plans, the county could start charging a fee to cover the extra cost, Holland said.

In return, developers and builders would get their permits quicker, enabling them to finish their projects sooner.

"I think that is what everybody is looking for," Holland said. "If we have an outside consultant doing at least a portion of the review, it would free up staff."

Gwinnett charges a fee for development and building permits, but it does not charge a plan review fee like some jurisdictions in metro Atlanta, Holland said.

Such a fee may be beneficial, said Michael Paris, president of The Council for Quality Growth, a Duluth-based trade group composed of developers, builders, engineers and others in the growth industry.

"Depending on how much it is, it may be worth an applicant's money to pay a fee if it gets a permit request turned around in two weeks instead of two months," Paris said.

Paris said Gwinnett takes longer than some local governments to review development plans and issue permits, but it is also quicker than some.

"I think there is always room for improvement, and I think this (study) will give us a road map to fix any areas that need help," he said.

Gwinnett officials will visit Cobb County on Monday to examine its plan review process, and a visit is planned for Alpharetta. Those were chosen because they get high marks for their speed in processing permit requests, Holland said.

Holland said the county does a good job of handling permits on the front end of the process, but it is getting complaints that when the county requires developers to make corrections to their plans and resubmit them, they bog down on their second time through.

A similar study in 2003 helped trim the turnaround time for permits from four weeks in some cases to the current 14 days, Holland said.

A speedy permitting process dovetails with economic development efforts in Gwinnett County, Paris said. A user-friendly process will help Gwinnett compete with other counties for warehouses, he said.

Time is key to developers and builders who have borrowed money to pay for land, because interest payments continue mounting until they finish their projects.

In 2005 the county Planning Division issued 419 development permits, representing 10,609 homes and 5.6 million square feet of commercial space on 4,728 acres, according to county information.