Just a few weeks after the unveiling of the Economic Development Steering Committee’s 112-page report on how to reform the land development review process in Leesburg, the town staff offered its own take on how to make improvements.
Economic Development Director Marantha Edwards and Public Information Officer Betsy Arnett recently conducted 26 interviews with representatives of the business and development community in order to understand areas of reform the town should focus on. Some of their findings were strikingly similar to the steering committee’s recommendations.
At this week’s Town Council work session, Edwards and Arnett said that predictability was also a central theme of their findings in their interviews. Some regulatory reforms are already in the works, they noted, including the eventual implementation of a consolidated permitting program with Loudoun County. Town staff is also expected to further scrutinize the development review process in a Lean Six Sigma study being conducted in December.
Edwards said the town still has not totally overcome its reputation as a having a cumbersome review process , a decade after the public fallout from Wolf Furniture’s decision—later reversed—to halt efforts to build a showroom store in town. The current development review process is geared more towards larger developers, and smaller developers are getting lost in the process, Edwards said.
Arnett listed several areas of potential reform for both the Zoning Ordinance and Design and Construction Standards Manual that guide the development process. Also, there are some conflicts between the two documents that the staff wants to fix, she said.
Concerns about the amount of detailed engineering and planning work the town requires early in the development review process also were noted.
“We heard a lot about the level of detail required for special exception and rezoning [applications],” Arnett said. “We know that zoning staff feels very protective about protecting the future of the town, but there probably is some middle ground that can be found.”
Arnett said that the council may also want to look at all of its current special exception uses, and decide whether more could be allowed by right. Bond approval is also something that could be done administratively, rather than required a full council vote, speeding up the review process by a month or more.
The implementation of a fast-track system is something recommended by the staff and the steering committee. But that can only be done once the council nails down what types of development it wants to encourage, Arnett said.
The creation of an ombudsman—someone assigned to each project to shepherd it through the process—would be a key cog of such a system, Arnett said. Unlike the project manager assigned to each application, the ombudsman would be someone not directly involved in the review of the project.
Both Edwards and Town Manager Kaj Dentler stressed a theme expected to reemerge at budget time: the need for more staffing resources.
“We are stretched so thin,” Dentler said. “Not everything can be expedited, nor can you afford to make everything expedited.”
Edwards said more staff would also be needed for the creation of an ombudsman role, as well as to revise the town’s regulations. But the need for a clearly defined goal and vision, in terms of future development, is most important, she said.
“We need to clarify desired development outcomes. What is it the town would like to see,” Edwards said. “Technical improvements only get us so far. The definition of a goal and vision would be critical.”
This week, the council began to comb through the steering committee’s list of 52 recommendations following its report. Some of those items are already underway in Town Hall, while others require council guidance or action. Among the recommendations that found majority support were holding a work session, with county staff invited, on how to increase the number of affordable dwelling unitsavailable in town, as well as cater to the needs of the town’s overall workforce. Other future work sessions will focus on the potential public-private partnership guidelines; the development and implementation of facade grant or improvement grant programs for downtown buildings; and providing incentives to developers to provide parking in new developments.
Under the resolution passed 6-1 Tuesday, with Councilman Tom Dunn dissenting, the council also shelved several steering committee report priorities, including revisions to the Crescent Design District; the development of a sophisticated town social media campaign; and exploring options for bus parking downtown.