Economic Development Via Regulatory Reform

By. Neil Williamson, President

employmentopportunitiesLocal economic development is about much more than just businesses moving into an area.  It is also about jobs and adding a new enterprise to the community.  While there are many paths to enhancing the local climate for economic development there are even more ways to create a regulatory environment that is openly hostile to such opportunities. 

Yesterday, a bipartisan group of Virginia’s congressional delegation (Griffith, Hurt, Kaine, Warner) introduced legislation designed to reform the federal permitting process.  The Augusta Free Press reports:

…introduced the Commonsense Permitting for Job Creation Act (H.R. 3434 and S. 1914) in both houses of Congress.  This bipartisan, bicameral legislation will address regulatory problems that have impeded prospective economic development sites like Berry Hill Mega Park in the Danville-Pittsylvania County area.

When local entities work to secure a site preparation permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to attract job-creating manufacturing firms, the Corps has often been reluctant to issue the permit if there is a lack of a company that has publicly committed to the site and prepared detailed blueprints.  A company will understandably not establish a facility at the site without an approved permit, but a permit cannot be approved without a company willing to locate at that site, creating an unfortunate stalemate situation.  The Commonsense Permitting for Job Creation Act specifies that the lack of a committed end-user company should not be a reason to deny a permit that meets all other legal requirements.

This “commonsense” federal legislation got me thinking about how local regulatory reform can improve economic development. 

Does the amount of time it takes to move a project from concept to moving dirt matter to a potential employer?

Should those charged with increasing the locality’s economic vitality spend a portion of their time looking inwardly to improve the permitting and approval process?

Based on our dozen years in the region, there is little or no uniformity to the regulatory environments of Central Virginia municipalities.

We regularly hear horror stories of projects that are taken to the brink of their very viability by overzealous (and often incorrect) interpretations and implementations of permitting.  We also have heard of local building officials giving contradicting interpretations.

We also hear of reasonable regulators who work with applicants to see that the letter of the law is followed and the project remains viable.

There are also significant differences in the time it takes to gain approvals from the localities.

If localities could identify procedural changes that could reduce the development process timeline without sacrificing public input or project quality, would they do it?

One such example is allowing the special use permit process and the site plan approval run concurrently.  Many Virginia localities do this now.  The reality is that these days many special use permits have a condition that the final site plan must come back for final approval to the Planning Commission.  Considering the significant amount of detail now required for SUP, adding the site plan approval (as a concurrent approval option)  could reduce the regulatory calendar by several months.

Of course there are some in the community that see the labyrinth of regulatory red tape as an opportunity to slow or halt increased economic development. 

The question each locality must answer is what level of economic vitality are you seeking and are your municipality’s ordnances, policies and procedures “shovel ready” for such opportunities?

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.


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