Written by Edward Smith
The Fresno City Council approved the budget June 22 without Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer’s Express Development Team. But Dyer still hopes to have a version of the express team ready for business by October.
And while the model is still being determined, Dyer says two things are certain — it would no longer require a fee, and it would still prioritize housing projects.
In its original form, the Express Development Team was an avenue developers could access by paying a fee in order to get expedited project review.
When Fresno City Councilman Tyler Maxwell made a motion to nix the program, it was because it prioritized developers with pockets deep enough to pay for fees for express treatment while failing to address small business owners and homeowners who experience the same difficulties in processing permit requests.
“What I took issue with was the notion we were going to allow folks who have the financial ability to cut in the front of the line ahead of these folks with small business,” Maxwell said.
Dyer, however, says housing availability needs to be addressed.
“At the end of the day, it’s about how can we expedite housing in Fresno in order to prevent and minimize the chance of rents escalating too quickly,” Dyer said.
The EDT would have eight people working in it to help expedite prioritized projects. This would include workforce housing, affordable housing and projects tied to grant funding that have expiration dates. Dyer said he also wants to prioritize infill development in Downtown Fresno and along the Blackstone Corridor.
Mike Prandini, president of the Building Industry Association of Fresno/Madera Counties, supported the EDT in its original form. The organization is still working to get a version of the EDT at the permitting department. He said the increased demand for building projects coming out of the pandemic has produced a need for solutions.
After seeing a slight dip in permits filed in 2020, demand to build in 2021 is forecasted to outpace 2019 levels, according to a budget presentation from the Planning and Development Department. Revenue for the department is driven by permit fees, a strong indicator of overall demand. Officials estimate the department will bring in $22.7 million, compared to $22.2 million in 2019.
Year-to-date, the City of Fresno has issued 1,800 new single-family permits — 50% over 20-year average, according to the presentation.
Going back decades, Fresno has garnered a reputation for its slow permitting process, Prandini said.
“Fresno has a bad reputation of projects going slow,” Prandini said. “Now that things are starting to heat up and things are starting to come around, additional project applications will slow the process down even further.”
That’s why Prandini supported the EDT.
Projects can be held up for months through multitudes of departments at the city, county and state levels.
“Somewhere along the line, there will be a problem. That’s inevitable and developers plan for these contingencies,” said Prandini. “But if the City can expedite the process, it can save developers a lot of money for these projects.”
In the beginning phases, construction financing comes with hefty financing rates that accumulate the longer a project takes to finish.
Even after a project map is approved, there are site-work plans, designs and architectural work that need to be submitted.
Affordable housing projects are very rarely done without grants and those grants often come with timeline stipulations, said Prandini. If a project can’t be executed in that timeline, developers lose out on essential funding to tackle extra costs such as prevailing wages and mandated green spaces.
And infill projects would especially be aided by express treatment because smaller projects are more sensitive to cost increases.
“If you can spread a hundred thousand dollars over a 40-acre parcel, that’s doable. If you’ve got to spread a hundred thousand dollars over two acres because you got delayed and it’s going to cost you a hundred grand more because that project has to get done on two acres, that makes it very difficult,” said Prandini.
Dyer now says the program they’re working on overcomes objections by eliminating the payment model and still adds to overall staffing levels.
Five new positions would be added to what’s being called the Strong Team Foundation — personnel who would act as concierge to people needing permits filed. They would inform people where their projects are and tell them what needs to be done.
But Maxwell still sees the best solution being to saturate the system with employees to help everyone.
“No one is against speeding up the permitting process for big developers,” said Maxwell. “But it can’t come at the cost of small mom-and-pop business owners.”