Some industry-specific terms become part of the general language even when not everyone can define them. Most people understand what zoning means. But ask a handful of representatives from different government entities how their entitlements process works and most will respond with, “What do you mean by entitlements?”
Clarifying the Term
“You own a piece of ground, a piece of property, there’s certain rights that go along with that property – a bundle of rights, they call it, and some of it is because you own the property and other rights are because of entitlements – what are you allowed to do with that property, what is that property zoned for? Zoning gives you the legal right to do certain things on the property,” explained Dan Stewart, vice president of development with the Gardner Company and Henderson councilman.
The reason most people own land is to do something with it. If that includes building structures, either residential or commercial, entitlements and zoning apply. Entitlements stem from Nevada laws, which are applied by county and municipal entities. Nevada counties have jurisdiction over land in unincorporated areas; cities handle their own entitlements and zoning through community development departments.
“We don’t initiate development,” said Trevor Lloyd, planning manager, Planning and Building Division, community services department, Washoe County. “Our function is to manage growth and development by different means.”
As development picks up, requests to build on everything from raw land to in-fill increase. It’s not just planning departments responsible for signing off on proposals. There’s a host of agencies.
There’s engineering with multiple programs and disciplines, roadways, sewer, utilities, water providers that are separate entities, and the Health Department if there’s a well or septic system, or if food preparation is involved. “There’s environmental and air quality, vector control and fire, Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District heavily involved. It’s an interdisciplinary function and you can’t really say there’s one specific agency or division that’s responsible,” said Lloyd.
Other agencies that might be involved are Regional Transportation Commission and Nevada Department of Transportation, state and federal agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife.
From Plants to Build
Given the number of entities that need to sign off on a project before it can break ground, it seems impossible any developer ever moves forward on a residential or commercial project in a timely manner, when “speed to vertical” matters because the old saying is still true – time is money.
“What really sets entities apart is how fast they handle this very complex and integrated system,” said Stewart. Entities need to be customer friendly, and their customers are developers. “Why? Because they’re developing more property that goes on the tax roles.”
So entities work with developers to get appropriate projects off the ground and into construction. Washoe County allows drop-in questions for the “expert of the day,” and individuals can attend a free pre-development meeting with experts from every entity involved. Prior to that meeting individuals can meet with experts if there’s something inherent in the proposal that could cause delays. “We don’t want them walking in if they’re just a no go at that point,” said Lloyd.
“The majority of land use activities go straight to building permit, so they don’t have to do public notification of neighborhoods and public hearing and all that process that’s involved for new subdivisions and bigger things that do require a discretionary review,” said Arlo Stockham, community development director, community development department, City of Reno.
Developers can receive input from staff before submitting an application through drop-in “Q and A” with staff at the front counter, through a more formal pre-application meeting with division managers or at weekly drop-in sessions with managers.
In Las Vegas, where there’s actually more land available within city limits than in Reno, the planning department sees everything from mom-and-pop development on a couple inherited acres to mega-master planned communities like Howard Hughes, said Robert Summerfield, director of planning, City of Las Vegas.
Core reviewing agencies for cities include the fire protection agency, the building department for building codes, planning department which administers zoning and land development codes, engineering to review design standards and engineering plans, and agencies covering utilities, water and sewer. In Las Vegas, the privileged licensing division becomes involved if the project may someday include alcohol or marijuana.
Regional agencies become involved if there’s impact to regional roadways or a regional plan.
“Sometimes it’s not a very streamlined process getting the regional plan and local government plans as aligned as possible,” said Stockham. “But it’s very important because that can really slow down the process and create a lot of costs when it’s not streamlined.”
Las Vegas has a pre-application process similar to Reno’s, with opportunities for developers to coordinate with all departments after providing preliminary drawings. The developer receives a checklist of documents required for the application process and 90 days to gather them. Past 90 days usually requires a recheck to make certain nothing has changed.
Because the one constant in the entitlements process is change. George Garcia, president, G.C.Garcia, Inc., a 20-year-old Nevada land planning and developer services firm, works with clients to get their projects approved.
“At any given point in time you’re dealing with regulations that are always in flux,” said Garcia. Within entities, new staff are hired, existing staff change positions or quit, administrative rules and regulations and their interpretation change. Nothing is static, including a community’s master plan. Even zoning changes.
Which means land owners and developers who buy or lease property may assume everything will be fine for their preferred use because they’ve seen it done that way before. However, they may find that, while it used to be done that way, now the jurisdiction doesn’t allow that use. Doing due diligence – or hiring a company to do it – saves developers time and money.
In Las Vegas, the next step is the actual application process. The developer submits the entitlement application. “That can run the gambit all the way from what we call a general plan amendment and/or re-zoning through variances, and rights of way and easements, site development review which is really where you’re getting approval for where the building is going to be and what the building would in concept look like,” said Summerfield.
Any discretionary hearings happen then, and in about 10 days the review of the application is finished and developers receive an action letter for any conditions of approval involved and can move forward if the project doesn’t require action by the Planning Commission or City Council. There’s a 30-day window once the application is submitted, when developers can hold required neighborhood meetings if a special use permit requires it.
Good Stewards of the Future
Among entitlement requirements are design guidelines and standards of each entity. Curbs and sidewalks, gutters and driveways need to be consistent with what already exists. The developer is responsible for half the street fronting the building or project, and standards have to be met for entities like fire protection – streets can’t be so narrow that a fire truck can’t get down them.
Zoning has to be followed. “That’s the way cities and government entities are able to control how their city builds out,” said Stewart. “So that you don’t have, say, a welding shop next to a daycare center, or an auto wrecking yard next to a high fashion boutique.”
Just as entitlements control land use within a jurisdiction, master plans, regional plans and/or comprehensive plans map out growth at city and county levels establishing policies and goals in terms of how the entity anticipates the community will develop.
For example, where Reno wants to promote reinvestment and re-development, the zoning ordinances encourage higher density and there are provisions to do adaptive reuse of existing buildings and in-fill. Each master plan has to be in conformance with the regional plan, and fit into zoning, which must be compatible with land use designations.
Keeping Pace and Keeping Peace
In some situations it’s necessary to protect environmentally sensitive land, to look at concurrence of development ensuring that infrastructure and services are available at the time of the development, or to balance developer needs with community needs.
The key component in making the process work, said Stewart, is how a developer works with the project’s neighbors. Because the last thing the entity wants at a public hearing is a huge fight. “It’s a big deal to make sure the neighbors are on board with you.”
Development is increasing but in most jurisdictions, it’s consistent rather than dramatic. That pattern of growth may reflect how jurisdictions choose to grow. Cities allow for a higher density, multi-family type projects, and more industrial and commercial uses than county areas, which tend to single family homes and more suburban or rural use.
Storey County, which has only unincorporated land, has seen a consistent pattern of industrial and commercial growth since 2010, particularly at Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, and its growth is keeping pace with the rest of Northern Nevada, said Austin Osborne, county manager.
“We keep consistent focus with our team so companies that come in not only know what’s written down, but that our team that’s going to administer those codes and entitlements will all be on the same page, so the company can meet its speed to vertical requirements,” said Osborne. Storey County expects companies locating there to be operational within 180 days, and Osborne said it’s the team’s responsibility to ensure the companies know they’ll get the support they need to meet county requirements.
On the other end of the state, the City of Henderson has experienced increasing growth over the last six to eight months, with more entitlements coming through the process, said Eddie Dichter, planning manager. Interest is in new land development in West Henderson, and in-fill, with both residential and commercial projects.
Henderson is keeping pace with growth while moving developers through the entitlement process with a unique system. Every other Monday is a deadline day; applications that meet the deadline are distributed for staff review, with comments returned to applicants by Thursday, 10 days later. Comments detail requirements for approval and whether the application needs Planning Commission or City Council approval.
Before that process, applicants can submit a Concept Plan Review, a free application requiring only minimal information that helps them understand restrictions and conditions on the property.
“We try to keep as much as possible at staff level,” said Dichter. “A design review for a building or architecture for housing that meets all code requirements, we’d keep it at staff level and it wouldn’t have to go to Planning Commission or City Council.” Not having to wait for either allows developers to move faster.
In North Las Vegas, retail and industrial projects and residential are growing along with re-development projects like a closed golf driving range and a planned, but never built, mixed use development both transforming into new warehouses. The city is home to Amazon’s 2.4-million-square-foot facility.
Developers are using up raw, in-fill and re-development land and two master planned communities, Tule Springs and Valley Vista, that had development agreements in place are building. An ordinance amended in February to encourage in-fill development on parcels 10 acres and less is bringing in projects.
“We look at [project approvals] with a team approach,” said Marc Jordan, director, Land Development and Community Services. “When we have a closing date, a couple weeks later we’ll meet with all departments involved so everybody can voice their concerns, what needs to be fixed, what needs to be done to make the project work.”
Like Las Vegas, North Las Vegas employs a pre-submittal application task force meeting where applicants can present site plans in an informal session and receive feedback on steps to take to get the entitlements in place.
The city has also worked with a home builders group to encourage residential development on in-fill properties in ways compatible with surrounding properties, and amended Title 17 so industrial projects only require staff review and don’t go before the Planning Commission, saving time and money on larger projects.
Keeping pace with technology is as important as keeping pace with the speed of growth. Las Vegas switched to electronic reviews of applications several years ago, but the upshot of being an early adapter means their software is now outdated. Currently the city is transitioning to new software that will streamline the process, so developers start in the same system for entitlements as they applied for their building permit, and everyone will be on the same page.
“It will help the quality of our reviews as well as the timeliness. We do a pretty good job here at the City of Las Vegas but I think having everybody using the same interface and system will further improve that efficiency,” said Summerfield.
Nevada Economic Development In View
Top Commercial Real Estate Development Industry Expert to Moderate Panel with Area Mayors.
While investments and progress serve as the foundations for economic development, a broader set of strategies includes streamlined interactions and processes among developers, entrepreneurs and government officials. In turn, the vitality of local and statewide economies often is driven by the businesses, organizations, cities, and people with a desire to create growth-worthy locales.
Relationships between developers or other business owners and community leaders will be explored when George Garcia, president of G.C. Garcia, Inc., leads a panel discussion at NEDA’s Nevada Economic Development Conference in August.
Garcia founded G.C. Garcia, Inc. in 1995, which has become a leading, Nevada-based commercial real estate development, redevelopment and planning services company. He has helped guide processes for decades that have contributed to the state becoming a mecca for growth. Garcia and his staff work with their clients to guide every aspect of redeveloping, acquiring or building new locations.
During the panel, Garcia will engage with two mayors who have expressed support for development projects: Mayor John J. Lee of North Las Vegas, Nev., and Mayor Debra March of Henderson, Nev. John Ramous, senior vice president and regional manager at Harsch Investment Properties, will also be a panelist.
The discussion will take place Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2 p.m. PDT, at the Green Valley Ranch Casino Resort in Henderson, Nev.
The panel will address what best constitutes a good economic development strategy for developers and city governments, including striking the balance between more or less regulation. The related roles of mayors, city councils and planning commissions will be explored.
Garcia has found the best development results derive from city leaders who are strategic in organizing regulations that benefit citizens, while also being conducive to business development.
“The question is not necessarily about regulation levels,” Garcia says. “The question is: Are Nevada cities using targeted regulations, and are the regulations achieving their goals? It’s best to be clear and targeted in assessing regulation’s impacts.”
Responsiveness of mayors and city councils is key to making a development’s engine hum. “I believe a mayor’s role should be clear: It’s leadership,” Garcia says. “A mayor should be involved in understanding a city’s marketplace by interfacing with the business community.”
He also has found that when government planning staffs provide information about growth goals, coupled with support of council members, synergy evolves for the advancement of an area and the projects developers are attempting to accomplish.
Garcia says that members of the development community make their determination as to whether a city is conducive for them to do business via a variety of factors. Much of this has to do with time.
“They need to align with the city in which they are developing as well as predict the timeline between the infancy of a project and delivery to tenants,” Garcia says.
Mayor Lee has been hands-on in bringing smart development to his community and recognizing that time stops for no developer.
He says, “One of the most expensive things about development is the price of interest one pays on projects that take you too long to get through the planning process and building process.”
Mayor Lee has created a facilitating approach. “I have two speeds, fast and faster,” he says. “In North Las Vegas, I have built a system that helps businesses expedite opening.”
Lee sees to it that regulations and ordinances are specific to what is really needed.
“We have streamlined so much that I’ve allowed the planning commission to accept more responsibility and leadership. This is so developers don’t have to go through the planning commission, then come to the council, which reduces the time for them to begin projects. We have streamlined everything we can to make it easier for them to be successful as our business partners.”
This sort of streamlining is a prevailing strategy among city officials that encourage commercial development. Mayor March is supportive as well, and she understands the development community likes to have clear expectations.
“They like to know what they’re dealing with and that there is consistency,” she says. “That’s what Henderson does well. We have a strategic plan and a comprehensive plan. We set the table through good community planning and outreach. Then, the development community knows what to expect when they come to Henderson.”
To learn more: www.gcgarciainc.com
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