City called on to improve development practices

City called on to improve development practicesScott O’Neil, executive director of the IWV Economic Development Corp., addresses local development obstacles at this week’s Ridgecrest City Council meeting — Photo by Laura Austin

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By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

During the Ridgecrest City Council’s regular meeting on Wednesday, it heard about some of the difficulties faced by local real estate developers.

Scott O’Neil, executive director of the IWV Economic Development Corporation, delivered a letter during public comment delineating some of the primary concerns.

“You need to know there are a lot of frustrations and hard feelings around,” said O’Neil. “Some of them are so frustrated that they’ve quit building, abandoned their projects or expressed that they’ll no longer build inside the city.”

O’Neil said the he’s met with developers, real estate investors, major employers and public officials to discuss what some of the biggest issues are and how to address them. He acknowledged that the city is working to correct some of the problems already, but that “recent acceleration in development is stressing the system.”

What O’Neil proposes is a developer’s guidebook – one with up-to-date processes that the city can enforce with consistency.

“The lack of such a guide results in many impromptu meetings with city officials,” he said in his letter. “These meetings are the result of issues that arise unexpectedly. These surprises are not necessarily intentional, but they do happen because communications are never perfect and the processes as they currently exist, are generally ad hoc.”

O’Neil added that the city had a seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent interpretation of existing standards and codes. He said that a guidebook would help eliminate unwanted surprises to developers and provide additional transparency.

“We need to make building up Ridgecrest for tomorrow a friendly experience,” he said.

Mayor Peggy Breeden and City Manager Ron Strand briefly addressed O’Neil’s comments, but the item came up during public comment and was not on the agenda for discussion.

“We have been meeting with developers and many of the builders for months now trying to do the very thing you’re asking for,” said Breeden. “It is not a short-term solution, it will be a long-term solution and we’re trying to change those things that need to be changed. Will it be done tomorrow? No, but we’re working on it.”

“There’s a long-term thing we need to get done and get fixed, but we have projects going right now,” said Norm Alexander, president of Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors.

“Those projects need to be hammered out, and we don’t have a lot of time. I’d like to make sure we don’t get spun up just on a long-term guide. Long term is one thing, but there are short-term things we need to get done.”

Strand said that his staff plans on coming back to the council in May with a cost-allocation-fee study done by a consultant to help update development processes.

“We have not updated our fees since 1994, which means the city is falling way behind,” said Strand. He said working with developers to avoid outdated processes has resulted in some of the inconsistent requirements by the city.

“This is a top priority we are working on trying to solve,” he said.

Vice Mayor Wallace Martin applauded O’Neil and the EDC for the letter and the points it made.

“I think your letter was very pointed with excellent points,” said Martin. “I think we can use it to make an excellent guide.”

He added that a guide needs to take into account the fees and processes of competing cities and that it needs to address how long the various processes would take.

Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens suggested that the city task its own Economic Development Committee to begin developing such a guidebook to be brought to council.

Others spoke of the need of more developer-friendly processes as well.

“We need to find ways to support [development] in every way we can,” said Pat Farris. “I remember you committed to streamlining the permitting process for the city. I was very encouraged, but it doesn’t look like that’s happened. I know you can’t do that alone, but certainly we need to commit to that cause.

“This is such a huge issue, it might be advisable to look for a consultant. I don’t think you’re going to figure this out, I’m sorry to say, because I think there’s a lack of experience.

“Bring in a consultant who can help build this guide.”

Alexander acknowledged the fact that Ridgecrest has a much smaller budget and available staff compared to similarly sized cities. He agreed that bringing in a consultant would be a good idea.

Strand said the city had hired a consultant for a cost-allocation-plan and fee study, but members of council and the public suggested a consultant to help develop a prospective guidebook and consult on other economic development matters.

See future editions of the News Review for council and economic development updates.

Story First Published: 2019-03-22