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We look at the tools and agile planning strategies that will streamline the next generation of planning, zoning, and code enforcement processes

Editors Note: This blog is based off of the Accela white paper 8 Trends Transforming Community Planning.

The world’s population is projected to increase from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050, and with this growth, the characteristics and demands of the population are changing.

To scale and enhance services planners must be innovative, searching out new tools, and new ways to solve problems. Cities are getting denser and larger, life expectancies are longer, increasing demand for nearby medical and care services, there is also the new expectation for digital connectivity wherever you happen to be in a city. Planner must confront these challenges head on, and are responsible for creating environments that are suitable and appealing for a broad array of citizens.

Here are eight of the planning trends shaking up local government:

1. A resurgence of cities and multi-unit residences, with overall urbanization anticipated to increase from 54 percent to 65 percent by 2050

2. An aging population with residents who have needs for convenient services close to home

3. A shift in values from material to social, with tiny house communities, charter schools, and communal spaces emerging

4. Businesses moving towards communal work areas, with shared administrative services for entrepreneurs

5. Citizens seeking healthier lifestyles, with needs for walkability, bike-ability and healthy foods

6. Citizens becoming more interested in sustainability with the demand for more efficient allocation of resources, including water, food and housing

7. Increasing ethnic diversity that drives municipalities to plan for inclusion instead of exclusion, creating unity, while retaining uniqueness

8. Growing interest around “Smart Cities” with services online, and information that is easily accessible through search and click functionality

To address the changing needs of residents, planning departments need a flexible development strategy when working on both long-range and short-range community plans. Planning commissions and code enforcement personnel must be aligned with department goals to deliver a seamless experience for citizens through improved processes and efficiencies in the back office.

Planning Department Realities

Much of the work involved with zoning, plan reviews and approvals, and code enforcement is often done manually, with either paper documents and maps or static PDF files that require heavy use of snail mail, emails and phone calls for communication. Planners may use a GIS system in the mapping process, which helps maintain map information and provides visualization, but does not address complex work processes, unstructured information management and communications needed in planning processes. The result of manual, or partially-automated planning processes has been:

1. A looseness and ambiguity in planning detail, which results in many rounds reviews and enforcement effort

2. Excessive time and cost for reviewing plans from public works departments for infrastructure projects

3. Long waits and extremely high costs for developers and contractors for processing plan reviews through the planning commission, ultimately slowing development times and driving up costs for builders and citizens

4. Manual communications and data sharing with building departments for plan reviews and conditions. Inspection files must include code information and approvals, so inspectors have what they need to inspect building sites

5. On-site agency payments by builders. Though fees associated with planning are generally flat, as opposed to building, where they are calculated, payments must still be collected and processed. This requires additional manual efforts on the agencies part, which adds to the inconvenience and cost

6. Slow response and processing times of citizen complaints for code violations can escalate quickly, resulting in poor customer satisfaction and a lack of confidence in government agencies

Challenges such as these caused by manual processes add time to the day-to-day activities of a planning department, and increase the likelihood for errors in manual data entry, and demand in-person visits to agency offices for inspection routing and data information.

The Accela Solution

Accela Planning Civic Application helps communities build and grow safely with zoning, plan review and approval, and code enforcement automation. The solution is designed for both public works projects and private developments.

Agency staff is empowered to manage project-specific applications, which require review against codes and requirements as defined in long-range planning documents. The solution simplifies processes for analyzing, inspecting, and decision-making on zoning variance applications associated with subdivisions, planned unit developments, and more.

Along with planning department staff, private developers and contractors also benefit from the functionality of Accela Planning. These licensed professionals can upload applications for many types of requests online, including zoning variances, building plans and any supporting documentation with the click of a button. They have complete access to fee payment processing and real-time status checks from a secure portal. Now, plan change requests and comments are provided online, which reduces turnaround times significantly. Plus, Accela is plan agnostic, and can enable the review of plans in multiple formats, including Adobe, Bluebeam, ePermitHub, ProjectDox, and ePlanCheck.

Inside the planning department, the Accela platform enables parallel reviews across various entities, with collaboration and version control built into the system to reduce effort, mistakes and rework. As work begins, Accela automates the sharing of code change requests, conditions for approval, and code information with the building department, creating a unified and seamless experience across planning and building functions for employees, developers, and builders. This prevents many round of requests, manual paper handling, lost or misplaced documents, and document rework for planners and code enforcement personnel.

The system also includes the ability to automate the processing of complaints, inspections, and code enforcement actions to ensure the well-being of a community. Code enforcement within the Planning Civic Application helps agencies maintain and enforce planning code against individuals, owners, contractors, properties, and businesses. This includes optimizing routes, having full access to needed data for inspectors in the field, and being able to capture needed data during site visits. Whether for follow-ups or proactive sweeps, agencies can use the mobile app within Accela Planning to create cases in the field and issue citations for violations using a smartphone, tablet or laptop to quickly move from citation to resolution.

Accela Planning delivers an online citizen-facing portal to accept and review citizen complaints or questions, and builders and developers plan applications. For example, Bernalillo County, New Mexico leverages Accela technology to allow builders, developers, and citizens 24/7 access to plan review comments, inspection history, land data and interactive GIS maps, and can easily generate reports based on record and time parameters selected by a user. With more self-service options, tasks that have previously taken days to complete now take just hours, or even minutes, leaving staff more time to focus on other job functions.

“Tasks that have previously taken days to complete now take just hours, or even minutes, leaving staff more time to focus on other job functions.” – Bernalillo County, NM

Providing a user friendly online portal for citizens allows community residents to easily submit a request at home or on their mobile device, at any time, and receive real time updates on their submission. Not having to visit an agency office to submit a complaint increases the likelihood citizens will submit requests for investigation, helping create safer, more appealing communities.

Click here to learn more about Accela’s Civic Solution for Planning.

Click here to read to the full white paper, “8 Trends Transforming Community Planning — Streamlining Planning  Zoning, and Code Enforcement Processes.”

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