By Sean Colella, PE, Project Engineer
It’s safe to say that “business as usual” is a distant future that we can only hope comes back into our lives this year or early next year. These are challenging times for us all, and there’s no denying it. Most of us are required to work from home, turning dining room tables into office space and possibly sharing the house with your spouse who is also working from home. Those who were deemed essential workers found themselves with extremely tight health restrictions when PPE was in high demand and in short supply. Not to mention the additional stress and consequences of isolation for children and adults.
Now that states are starting to open industries in discrete phases, let’s take a look back at how state agencies and local municipalities responded to the health crisis and quickly adapted to continue reviewing projects and therefore promoting development in their respective cities and towns.
For as long as I can remember, preparing for an application submittal to the local municipality felt like preparing for your master’s thesis. In some municipalities, it was required to submit more than ten (10) copies of the site plan application, supporting documents, maps and full size (24”x36”) Site Plan drawings. The majority of our Site Plan drawings incorporate ten or more pages, the amount of paper starts to accumulate …. fast! This process is time consuming and utilizes valuable time and effort from our engineers, not to mention these packages typically are hand delivered directly to the municipality. This means even more time away from design efforts.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the public offices immediately followed the required actions mandated by the governing bodies in Massachusetts and New Hampshire respectively. This meant closing their offices to the public with some municipalities still closed to this day. This effectively forced engineers and developers to find new methods to submit applications and/or design drawings, hence the advent of electronic submittals. Electronic submittals, in PDF formats, are more efficient, economical and considered complete as long as all documents are accounted for. This creates an advantage for consultants as we can now respond and submit materials the same day, sometimes in hours, to keep the applications on schedule with the planning or zoning boards.
In times when social distancing and self-quarantine was the new normal, it would have been a risky decision to meet with the applicants/clients personally to gather original signatures on the application materials, as was typically required by the municipalities. Original signatures were challenging enough, not to mention if the applicant was on holiday, travelling, or lived out of state. This specific requirement would often delay the local application if the board decided it was incomplete, pushing the schedule up to one month in some areas. With the technology we have at our fingertips today, application signatures can be obtained in a matter of hours. We owe a great deal to the local municipalities who have been flexible with their standard requirements.
Perhaps the most critical item during this whole application process was, and still is, planning/zoning board meetings and public hearings where abutters and residents can voice their concerns or comments for or against the proposed project. Due to the state mandated limit on social gatherings, the municipalities had to act quickly! Some did flawlessly, moving to virtual meeting platforms such as GoToMeeting, Zoom, or Facebook Live. Others did not move to the virtual platform as efficiently, and some of our project schedules were directly impacted. The public meetings were still noticed by the city or town to the direct abutters and residents in advance of the meeting and a media format was prioritized for public to weigh-in on the projects. It was, and will always be, a right of the abutter to have a voice in their respective city or town when it comes to development or redevelopment in their direct neighborhood.
A clear advantage to the virtual meeting platform is the overall efficiency with which the applicants, developers and engineers are able to move through the meetings. No more travel to and from the town offices, which in some locations are over an hour away. These days, we can log in to the meeting platform for our application to be heard, give a quick project summary, and field any questions from the public or city/town board members. All this can typically be accomplished in an hour or less, depending on the complexity of the project and the knowledge of the particular city/town boards.
It was common procedure for the local municipalities to gather comments from all town departments including engineering, water department, DPW, conservation commission, zoning board of appeals and planning board, to name a few. These comments were consolidated in a single formal document which was then mailed or emailed to the consulting engineer, owner and applicant(s) for review. This was often very time consuming and did not allow the consulting engineer ample time to revise the Site Plan drawings or draft a formal response letter to the local municipality in advance of the next meeting. With the transition to formal comments being received via email, there is now a huge advantage to respond with a much quicker turnaround time, therefore limiting the number of meetings and public hearings required to approve the application, tightening the projected permit schedule(s).
As with all transitions, there were bound to be some growing pains as a direct result of the COVID-19 situation. As was anticipated, there were some technology challenges, whether it was human error, unfamiliar with virtual platforms, or simple lack of technology in some remote towns of New Hampshire. Owners, applicants and consulting engineers showed extreme patience during this recent transition period. We are definitely trending in the right direction and with each new passing week we are seeing more progress and better procedures within the local municipalities. Nothing has rung truer to me than the current attitude and corresponding statement, “We are all in this together.” So, let’s make the most of this situation and strive for a little progress every day.