Army Corps seeks developers' help in permitting process
By Charlotte Libov
The US Army Corps of Engineers is so short-staffed that it is asking developers to shoulder some of its work safeguarding the environment by writing public notices for their own projects and contributing to pay students to handle the paperwork, an agency official said.
John Studt, chief of the South Permits branch, said such programs were discussed at an April meeting of Col. Robert M. Carpenter, commander of the corps' Jacksonville District, and members of the Builders Association of South Florida as a way to cut the backlog of permit applications. Action can take up to 18 months.
Mr. Studt, who attended the meeting, said these are among "a variety of efficiencies" the agency is looking at to trim application time.
One is asking developers to consider paying for students' work on applications. The money would be funneled through colleges for work-study programs and the students would "come in and do administrative work," Mr. Studt said.
Currently, students and retirees do work voluntarily for the agency, but the students receive only college credit. This, he said, would expand that program.
He said extreme care would be taken to prevent a conflict of interest as developers fund agency workers.
"There would be a complete wall," he said. "We would be totally separate from that funding, so it doesn't mean that the student aide would work on that developer's project. They would help us with the administrative work for all the projects," he said. "The development community knows this is a burden that needs to be taken care of."
In addition, the agency is encouraging developers to draft notices to be placed in conjunction with their applications.
"We are encouraging the development community," he said. "For example, if they draft a public notice for us, we'll review it and edit it and make it right. They learn that if they draft it objectively, we can get it out quickly." "This helps the environment," he said, because it frees his staff to review applications carefully.
"I told the development community when I've discussed the option of them drafting public notices for us that it can't be a sales pitch," he said, and warned them that if notices became promotional, it would take longer to review and post them.
This comes as developers grow more restive about the time it takes to process applications. Lani Kahn Drody, president of the Builders Association of South Florida, and other members are to meet May 9 and 10 in Washington with Florida's two senators and other officials to discuss the delays.
"From what I understand, this is a completely understaffed office with a huge backlog and they are not able to deliver in a timely manner," Ms. Drody said. "It's not resolved at this point. We have a lot of concerns about it. It's crazy to wait 18 months, and I'm not sure you can put all the blame there if it's not being funded and staffed."
Mr. Studt said he sympathizes with the developers and his agency is "not at all happy with the time it's taking us, either."
A funding shortage is at the root of delays in processing of environmental permits for developers by the US Army Corps of Engineers, an official says.
"Our regulatory program is funded by an annual appropriation that we can't add to, and it supports only a certain level of staff," said John Studt, chief of the corps' South Permits branch. But, he said, "the budget will be increased this year and next year."
Right now, his division, which includes the Southeast Coast and the Southwest Coast of Florida, has a staff of 43, divided between the two locations. After a 10% funding increase, two more people will be hired for Southeastern Florida, he said.
"Our base budget for the fiscal year was $12.7 million, which was a 10% increase over last year's budget, and hopefully, we'll get an additional 10% for next year," Mr. Studt said, adding that about half of those increases are eaten up by cost-of-living raises for staff.
Howard Nelson, a senior partner with law firm Bilzin Sumberg who is co-chairman of the Builders Association of South Florida's environmental subcommittee, said developers must receive environmental permits from three agencies before starting a project - the local permit from the Department of Environmental Resources Management; the state permit from the Department of Environmental Protection; and the federal permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Of the three, he said, the federal permit takes the longest by far.
"Processing times for all of them is really slowing up, but historically, the federal approval has been the longest of the three and it is getting even longer, stretching into 14-20 months. It's possible to get state and local permits in six to seven months and not see your federal permit for a year after that," Mr. Nelson said.
In addition, he said, "another concern we have is that we are starting to get a lot of different results."
"In terms of a single project, the state and local agencies may say it's okay to fill in one spot but not another, and there will be another completely different answer from the US Army Corps of Engineers. So it concerns us because we have to meet all three of the criteria," Mr. Nelson said.
The corps had proposed creating a regional general permit for Miami-Dade County to shorten the approval time, he said, "but several conditions they put in were troubling to us."
For instance, Mr. Nelson said, a developer had to promise on-site retention of 25% to 30% of wetlands "no matter what quality it might be."
Silvio Cardoso, president of United Homes, said the processing inconsistency between the agencies and the delays, particularly in regard to the federal agency, result in "huge construction costs."
"The process is delaying projects for a long, long time. It takes a year or two to get a permit," Mr. Cardoso said. "Even when they have no jurisdiction, you need to get something that says that, and that can take a year."
"We've had numerous meetings. Every time they say they are going to resolve it, and it doesn't get any better," he said.
"It's costing huge amounts of money just to hold the land. The cost is astronomical, but we've mentioned it to them and it seems to have no effect," Mr. Cardoso said. "A governmental agency is supposed to have a better attitude, but they don't."
Mr. Studt said the developers need to appreciate the complexity of his agency's task, noting that the state has a great deal of wetlands, along with numerous varieties of endangered wildlife to protect.
"We are making progress," Mr. Studt said, "but obviously it takes a little while for that progress to be felt by the development community."