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Charlotte, N.C., Digitizes Commercial Planning Process

New electronic review process slashes length of approval process and has all city plan reviewers working collaboratively.

by / October 16, 2012

Early last month, an estimated 35,000 attendees swarmed Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic National Convention. Rather than battle the unavoidable traffic and congestion resulting from the event, employees of the city’s Land Development Division maintained their productivity by teleworking.

Just a couple of years ago, such a strategic move wouldn’t have been possible, explained Brendan Smith, senior engineer in Charlotte’s Land Development Division, which is charged with reviewing and approving commercial development plans.

Until recently, that process was manual and paper-based. About 50 plans come in each month and are reviewed by at least five different offices, which evaluate them for compliance with various city ordinances, including the city’s storm water management program, urban forestry guidelines and erosion control ordinance. Transportation officials review plans for any needed adjustments due to traffic impacts.

With the paper-based system, each agency had its own set of proposed plans, and engaged in its own back-and-forth exchange with the plan’s designer. These independent review processes could lead to conflicts between the comments of different agencies, leading to frustration and unnecessary delays.

Division Manager Dave Weekly told Government Technology that they needed a solution that would help streamline the process for customers.

“We wanted to come up with a more efficient way to do the plan reviews,” he said, “and that was through electronic plan submittals and electronic plan reviews.”

Within a few months, Charlotte had an electronic plan submission process in place, using current software from Accela that they already used to track permits. Debuting initially as a voluntary option, electronic plan review became mandatory in January 2012.

The new electronic process has all of Charlotte’s plan reviewers working collaboratively, making comments on the PDF file, circulated via email. The engineering division does a final review before plans are returned to the customer, to ensure that input is coordinated and not in conflict.

Weekly and Smith noted several improvements resulting from the new system. There are environmental benefits, achieved by not having to print multiple copies of different versions of thick site development plans. Countless trips to the government center are also eliminated. Plans can be submitted via email around the clock, adding another layer of convenience for applicants. The new process is also much quicker, saving time due to a more coordinated city response.

“Some plans are reviewed and approved on the first review, but almost all of them are reviewed and approved at least by the second review now,” said Weekly.

Going forward, the division now has an electronic archive of all approved development plans, drastically cutting back on document storage needs.

The city’s Planning Department, hoping to replicate the Land Development Division’s success with EPLAN, is now looking to use the system for its residential subdivision review process.

Charlotte continues to look for ways to use the electronic data stored in the EPLAN system in the interest of advancing open government. A GIS layer has been added to the approved plan data, allowing website visitors access to all approved development activity in the city. Prior to EPLAN, this data could only be obtained via a labor-intensive manual search.

“What we're trying to accomplish is a single source for people to come to for city permitting where they can get all their information in one place,” Smith said.

Charlotte’s EPLAN system was recognized as a 2012 “Bright Idea” by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

More details on EPLAN are available here.


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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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