Fixing Charlottesville NDS Engine Light

By Neil Williamson, President

car-check-engine-lightIf you have ever driven with a “Check Engine” light illuminated, you have an idea of where Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services (NDS) Department has been for some time.

Everyone (land owners, neighborhood associations, developers, etc.) agrees that something is seriously wrong but no one knows specifically what it is or, perhaps more importantly, how to fix it – until now.

In 2016, the City of Charlottesville contracted the Novak Consulting Group to conduct an organizational efficiency study.  Their 152 page report reflects significant engagement by this consultant with not only City staff but also the various departmental “customers”.  For NDS that interaction included members of the development community as represented by the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable (CADRe).  This type of 360 degree review is to be commended.

The report identifies structural issues with NDS and attempts to quantify the workload of the 37.5 Full Time Employees.  The report highlights five recommendations (number 26-30 of the report) to improve the NDS department.  Three of these recommendations are rather perfunctory, new software, workload tracking and fee schedule review but two of the recommendations stand out as bold and, perhaps, game-changing.  Unfortunately, in reviewing the staff responses to the recommendations (see below), the Free Enterprise Forum is not convinced the culture of NDS will change without significant outside influence.

 

RECOMMENDATION 27: Designate an Assistant City Manager as the owner of the City’s development review process and Chair of the Pre Development Meeting.

Currently all development related applications are processed and managed by staff within NDS.  Front desk staff perform intake, and then an application is assigned to appropriate Planning staff. The Planner assigned to the case reviews the application and sends hard copies of the plans to the appropriate department – such as Public Works, Parks – for comment. All comments are then sent back to the Planner who compiles them and provides them to the
applicant. Then it is the responsibility of the applicant to address all comments.
Unfortunately, this process does not provide an opportunity to resolve issues among comments.

When there is disagreement or conflict between comments, the applicant is often put in the position of mediating the resolution between departments or disciplines. The development review process in Charlottesville needs a designated owner. The owner needs to be in a position of authority in order to provide clear and consistent direction to all
development review staff, regardless of their department. This position should also be the face of the process to the development community. It is recommended that an Assistant City Manager serve in this role. [emphasis added – nw]

Staff response:

Staff agrees that a comprehensive review of the development process is necessary. Staff agrees that a consistent process that ensures responses to applicants that have been reached through a cooperative inter-departmental process is absolutely critical. Staff would like to further explore the efficacy of the model suggested and the connection to the City Manager’s office.

On the face of this recommendation it is clear that NDS lacks appropriate leadership.  This recommendation is not about personalities but about the need for a titular head that has the authority to get things done.  Reading between the lines of the somewhat tepid staff response suggests they acknowledge the lack of leadership issue but are not yet sure how such a reorganization might impact the functions (and individuals) in NDS.

 

RECOMMENDATION 26: Engage the development community in a process to identify development review reforms.

As noted, NDS under its current Director has made concerted efforts to engage more directly with neighborhoods as well as the development community (process improvements, community outreach efforts, communication efforts). Through some of these efforts a group known as the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable (CADRE) was formed. CADRE is comprised of
over 120 development community stakeholders (such as land owners, architects, engineers, builders, developers) with interest in the Charlottesville community. The group was formed in large part due to a common sense of frustration about the City’s development approval process.

To learn more about these issues, The Novak Consulting Group met with CADRE’s steering committee. The group discussed a series of key issues that they are working to address with the City generally, and NDS specifically:
• Disconnect between Council, Planning Commission, and Staff regarding vision and administration
• Need for strategic planning and urban design
• Poor interdepartmental communication and coordination
• Lack of decision-making authority among staff

It is evident by the stakeholder feedback as well as staff interviews, that the current relationship with the development community is strained. In order to improve the relationship and most importantly identify needed reforms in the development process, it is recommended that the City and the development community engage in an improvement exercise.

The staff response:

NDS initiated this recommendation in February 2016. As a matter of fact, the development community has folded the Developers Roundtable Forum started by NDS into a formal countywide interest organization. NDS Director meets with the organization from time to time. The idea is to discuss mutual ways of addressing improvement to the review process. The development review process will always be a work in process. The developer’s roundtable can be utilized to provide feedback and suggestions.

Amazingly, the staff response honestly believes the creation of CADRe was a part of their outreach to the community.  I attended the February 2016 NDS developer meeting – there were specific questions about the feedback loop.  At the end of the meeting, staff suggested it was a great meeting and the  group should get together again in another year.  A meeting once a year is not engagement – it is a checklist item.

Yes CADRe is a result of NDS — it was the absolute failure of NDS to effectively communicate with the development community resulted in CADRe’s creation.  Engagement is important.  The Free Enterprise Forum strongly encourages the NDS Director to be present at all CADRe meetings not just “from time to time”.

Charlottesville should be saluted for closely examining their organizational efficiency.   In many ways now, the city has a diagnosis of what is wrong.

The question now is if anyone (City Council? City Manager? Citizens? CADRe?) will actually advocate for the fix of the NDS problem or simply ignore the engine light until it is too late.

Stay tuned.

Neil Williamson

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.

Photo Credits: Carpower.com

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