Real Estate & Construction  November 22, 2023

Developers, planners weigh costs of municipal backlogs

BOULDER — Delays in the development-review process carry enormous costs for developers and add to housing costs, with local municipalities’ efforts to shorten review times exacerbated by staffing shortages.

A panel discussion at the Boulder Valley Real Estate Conference Thursday, dubbed “Municipal Backlogs,” brought together two developers and two area planning directors. The panel was moderated by John Tayer, president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber.

David Zucker, principal and CEO of Zocalo Community Development, a Denver-based developer that is building the Weathervane mixed-income community in east Boulder, said delays in development approval added to costs of the project, affecting the company’s ability to deliver affordable housing.

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“This should be pre-COVID pricing,” Zucker said of a workforce-housing project that suffered extensive delays. “So because of those delays, we now have post-COVID pricing.”

Units that should have cost $330,000 to build instead cost more than $408,000, he said.

“We essentially suffered a cost increase, we imagine, about 25%.”

Wendell Pickett, principal with Frontier Cos. LLC, which joined in the Weathervane project, said projects in Boulder take an especially long time to develop.

“This is an extremely difficult place to develop, and Longmont is close behind in that difficulty,” Pickett said.

“Time to get through the process has lengthened by at least double, the number of reviews with staff and submissions have also at least doubled,” he said. “The complexities of the neighborhood,, the political environment has not only stretched out but has greatly influenced what we can actually deliver from what is identified in the comprehensive plan and code.”

Weathervane was built with fewer units than was allowed by code, he said.

“In the project David discussed, we should have been able to build over 430 units under the code using the allowances we got through two plus years of hearings, political process and various departments input,” he said, but opposition mounted, with some arguing that the project was too dense for that part of town.

“We’ve had similar experience in Longmont on a townhome project we’ve been working on getting through the pipeline, and this delta between what is allowable under the theoretical code and what you can get through politically is a point that I think that we all have to get involved in resolving with not only council but supporting staff to say, ‘No, this is allowed.’”

Glen Van Nimwegan, planning director for the city of Longmont, said staffing shortages have been a persistent challenge for the city in its efforts to shorten development-review times.

“We did have plans for some efficiency changes,” Van Nimwegan said, “but quite frankly, the Great Resignation kind of got in our way. And I think in the past year, I spent the majority of my time just trying to fill holes we’ve had in our planning department. We’ve lost four planners this last year, engineering the same, building the same. And for planning, that’s half the staff. So what do you do? You have other people doing the job of a couple of folks. We brought back some retirees to kind of fill those holes that thank God they were out there and willing to do additional work.”

Van Nimwegan added that job openings that formerly attracted 60 applicants now might draw just 20 resumes, “and most of them aren’t really qualified,” he said.

Brad Mueller, director of planning and development services for the city of Boulder, said the planning department has suffered from extensive turnover — including five planning directors in five years — but that most key staff positions have now been filled.

The department of 90 at one point had 15 vacancies, he said, but was able to bring back some individuals who had worked with the city previously.

“So we’ve been able to fill those key positions,” Mueller said. “We’re not seeing attrition other than just kind of normal turnover and all our key positions are filled.”

Mueller said there are various points in which his department will intersect with the city, including “general inquiry,” where the public might have questions about zoning, rezoning, etc.; the planning process for projects that need to go through discretionary review, development review, etc.; and the building-permit process.

“We have implemented improvements in all three of those areas,” Mueller said.

One of those improvements has been an inquiry model that is in-person, online and by phone, Mueller said.

Boulder has also been working to improve the planning and building-permit processes, with a key part being the “initial intake,” as plans are submitted. He said a “concentrated team” of city employees in both planning and building permitting “are responsible just for the intake and the completeness check to get it to be a perfected application sooner than later not drawing it out and not trying to do the review before the review but at the same time getting the right information upfront so that so that we can get into the process right away.”

He added that development teams, too, have suffered from staffing shortages and sometimes take longer than necessary to respond to city questions.

Van Nimwegan said public hearings also add extensive time to a process. Even with projects that are approved by the Planning Commission, “pretty much everything gets appealed,” he noted. “And then you go to a hearing with City Council. So it’s kind of a scary process.”

One option to reduce public hearings that is allowed in Longmont’s code enables the planning director to approve an administrative project, such as a multifamily project of up to 310 units that meets all the code requirements.

He added that he’s seen “a reduction in civility” in public hearings, which he said has scared some new graduates from entering government service.

Communication is key

Zucker said the process in Boulder can get bogged down in minutia.

“There’s simply too many details, too much minutia that planners are able to get involved in in Boulder that we don’t see in other communities,” he said, citing a stormwater issue for Weathervane that took six months to resolve.

Pickett said ongoing communication between the development team and city officials is key.

“So my experience is, the more that we can communicate and get staff and the developer, or architect to have regular communication to get questions answered, to get clarification, the smoother the process has gone.

“Also you know there’s ‘getting to yes,’ for everyone,” he said. “The cities are telling us, ‘We want more housing, we want more projects, we want more business.’ We all need to find ways to help each other get to ‘yes.’”

BOULDER — Delays in the development-review process carry enormous costs for developers and add to housing costs, with local municipalities’ efforts to shorten review times exacerbated by staffing shortages.

A panel discussion at the Boulder Valley Real Estate Conference Thursday, dubbed “Municipal Backlogs,” brought together two developers and two area planning directors. The panel was moderated by John Tayer, president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber.

David Zucker, principal and CEO of Zocalo Community Development, a Denver-based developer that is building the Weathervane mixed-income community in east Boulder, said delays in development approval added to costs of the project, affecting the company’s…

Christopher Wood
Christopher Wood is editor and publisher of BizWest, a regional business journal covering Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer and Weld counties. Wood co-founded the Northern Colorado Business Report in 1995 and served as publisher of the Boulder County Business Report until the two publications were merged to form BizWest in 2014. From 1990 to 1995, Wood served as reporter and managing editor of the Denver Business Journal. He is a Marine Corps veteran and a graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder. He has won numerous awards from the Colorado Press Association, Society of Professional Journalists and the Alliance of Area Business Publishers.
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