Before joining Foresite Group, I worked for the City of Phenix City reviewing submitted plans for all aspects of engineering. During my time in this role, submitting parties often asked what I was looking for that would ensure their plans were approved quickly and smoothly. As engineers, a quick and efficient submittal process is always our goal. This saves time, money and energy for everyone involved. So, what are those internal review meetings at municipalities looking for? I’ll outline a few major points below.
Conformance to Published Standards The first thing municipalities will check is how your design matches their published standards. The first step in getting your submittals through the approval process more quickly is to know the municipality’s design standards and adhere to them as closely as possible. If you know a particular standard will be difficult to meet for your project, be proactive about coordinating with the correct official for the appropriate waiver or variance. This is a great opportunity to begin (or strengthen) relationships with those municipal officials. An email or phone call prior to submittal can often save you and your client time and money. These contacts can also help you navigate their particular approval process. Every municipality approves plans and issues permits in a different manner and on a different timeframe. Familiarize yourself with deadlines for submittals, reviews and revisions. Missing these deadlines can add weeks to the approval process.
Interest of Public Safety After running through design standards, municipalities will examine your submittal on a deeper level. Their priority is the safety of the citizens they serve. Consider not only how you design your site to be used, but also how the public will actually use your site. Are there opportunities for safety issues to arise? If so, how can you alter your design to deter unsafe behaviors?
I once encountered construction plans that restricted a travel lane in a parking lot. This travel lane abutted a drive thru for a fast-casual restaurant with no physical separation between the travel lane and the drive thru lane. There was concern that people attempting to circle the restaurant would have to go around the cars waiting in the drive thru, entering the travel lane where motorists would not expect them. Some municipalities have regulations that can force the engineer to change the design, and it’s important to be aware that a redesign may be mandated.
Is This a Liability? Very closely related to safety is liability. It is amazing the amount of litigation that municipalities, even small ones, face every year. As these municipalities try to stretch their budgets ever thinner, liabilities can seriously derail much-needed infrastructure and improvement projects. For this reason, many municipalities are hyper vigilant about design issues that may cause liability in the future. Even frivolous litigation cost municipalities, and they seek to avoid it in the design and construction phase. Be considerate of these hidden issues and proactive about correcting them.
The other side of liability is maintenance. Municipalities across the country field calls every day about the maintenance work they aren’t doing. No municipality wants new infrastructure that will cause them maintenance nightmares. As engineers, we are caught between a developer who is concerned with constructability and cost today and a municipality who is concerned with maintenance and replacement costs 30 or 50 years in the future. This is one of the more difficult tightropes to walk. Be considerate of future maintenance, especially for public infrastructure. For example, I once reviewed plans that showed a storm pipe directly under a retaining wall (an attempt to control costs). Municipalities operate under a “when” not “if” maintenance occurs mentality, and this pipe would have been impossible to dig up and repair or replace without compromising the retaining wall and endangering all the facilities it supported.
If, as engineers, we can do our best to be proactive on these issues, we should see a marked improvement in the approval process as we work with municipalities. Remember, the project should be mutually beneficial. Most cities want to see development and growth and, as good engineers, we want to help municipalities make sure it’s done right.
About Clay Massey, PE
Clay Massey, PE, is a Project Manager for Foresite Group’s Land Development Division in Auburn, Alabama. Clay graduated from Auburn University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering and has a background with municipalities and land development. Clay is an avid sports fan enjoys being in the great outdoors.