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College Station panel suggests revisions

By SOMMER HAMILTON

Eagle Staff Writer

A committee formed in April to study College Station’s development review process handed over far-reaching recommendations this week that include revising subdivision ordinances and solving deep-seated communication problems between city departments.

The seven-member “blue ribbon” committee, composed of business and community leaders appointed by City Manager Tom Brymer, met in weekly sessions over the past six months. The group interviewed 32 developers, engineers and city employees and studied past reports to produce eight pages of findings and recommendations released to the public Friday.

Brymer said Friday that he will work closely with Development Services Manager Joey Dunn, who took over the spot in August, to implement the committee’s recommendations.

Brymer said he still was reviewing the report to determine how best to implement the recommendations. But he said the six-month time line to rewrite the subdivision ordinances is not unreasonable.

“We’re going to use [the report] as a road map for improvements,” he said. “These are recommendations that need to be taken very seriously and implemented, now that we know our destination.”

The committee’s task was to make recommendations to help improve the development review process, which builders of commercial and residential projects within the city must go through to get permits.

Most of the study focused on underlying communication problems that, in many cases, left both developers and city employees frustrated, according to the report.

The report indicates that decades-old problems snowballed to result in a “culture and set of practices” that allowed miscommunication. The perceived problems prevented employees from offering recommendations and left developers with the impression that ordinances were applied in an “inconsistent and unreliable” fashion.

The City Council should set a clear philosophy for development in College Station and determine which businesses are eligible for “favored status” treatment, the committee’s report concludes. That includes developments that would bring a certain number of jobs and revenue to the community.

To resolve some inconsistencies, the committee recommends that subdivision ordinances — which govern the details of residential development — be overhauled and rewritten within the next six months.

The outdated codes, which the report indicates lack specificity, left many developers interviewed by the committee feeling that “the answer may very well depend on who you talk to,” said Jerry Fox, chairman of the blue ribbon committee and city president at Compass Bank.

Exemptions under the subdivision ordinances often have become the rule, Fox said.

“Developers should not feel compelled to employ an attorney to get a permit approved or address flaws in the system,” the report says.

The committee was appointed shortly before Kelly Templin resigned as development services director in the spring.

Fox said the committee members at first thought they’d be poring over development review charts and discussing how to expedite time lines. But when they began interviewing those who participate in the process, he said, group members felt they needed to focus on the larger-scale issues that emerged before they could address detailed processes.

“For us to be as comprehensive as we wanted to, it would have taken us another six months,” Fox said. “We’re trying to lay out what the perception is in the eyes of the stakeholders we talked with. Everybody at least needs to be aware that the perceptions exist, and then they can work from there.”

The report found that the city attorney’s office and development services staff had a “mutual disdain” for one another, which handicapped the process in which legal staff reviewed developers’ applications.

The committee recommended the two departments “develop a team relationship,” in addition to ensuring that legal aides have adequate time to review reports and research from development staff.

The group also tackled a perception that emerged in the interviews that the city manager’s office “micro-manages” development services and overrides development staff recommendations without adequately explaining reasoning.

Directions from Brymer’s office to find a way to work with particular developers also left city employees the committee spoke with feeling they had to push the project through and “acquiesce to a developer’s demands.”

“Communication style may come across as domineering or negative,” the report says in its findings, recommending that Brymer’s office be aware of how staff members interpret managerial directives and find a way to better communicate.

Brymer wouldn’t comment Friday on specific conclusions regarding problems within city departments.

Overall, Fox said the committee couldn’t recommend how to solve the communication failures. But the group worked to bring issues heard repeatedly in interviews to the forefront so the city administration could work toward a solution.

“It’s difficult for us to recommend specific ways to improve communication,” Fox said. “But we wanted to make sure everyone could at least agree what the problem was.”

• For copies of the committee’s report, contact public information officer Becky Nugent at 764-3768 or bnugent@cstx.gov.

• Sommer Hamilton’s e-mail address is shamilton@theeagle.com.

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