The sudden onset of COVID-19 has led every branch of State and Local governments scrambling to impose appropriate regulations and policies aimed at balancing public safety and avoiding a massive backlog. Each local planning and zoning authority, board of appeals, and permitting department already has a unique set of local rules for conducting business, but new emergency orders can dramatically change an agency’s review and approval process works in 2020 and has also led to a whole new meaning of “business as usual” that continues to evolve.
In Montgomery County, for example, the Planning Board has authority over development applications such as preliminary plans and site plans, and recommendation review items including conditional uses. Applications are submitted electronically but as of March 15, the Planning Department’s headquarters are closed to the public with all staff teleworking. Those limitations make it even more important for an applicant to know the right questions to ask and exactly who is the right staff person to respond. And even though some events were canceled in March, if you have a pending application it will be rescheduled and the Planning Board is conducting each of its April meetings online. New rules have been published for “attendance” by phone or online, submission of written testimony, and registration requirements to allow live testimony by phone for applicants and opponents. The Montgomery County Board of Appeals is also continuing to hold its hearings by online platforms, but its offices are also closed and its hearings are governed by a completely different set of rules, procedures, and deadlines.
The Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services remains closed to the public, but operates electronically. Paper applications cannot be submitted for new projects of any kind. Fast-tracking and office consultations are suspended, but electronic alternatives are available by coordinating with staff. Permit processing and inspection schedules are on track for new projects including use and occupancy permits; however, these require closer coordination with staff to mitigate delays. Complaint-driven inspections are no longer a priority, except for life safety issues.
In Frederick County, the Planning & Permitting and Treasury offices are closed to the public, except for limited drive-through services for tax payments. The Planning Department is performing its development review functions remotely and requiring expanded use of its new electronic submittal platform. While applications continue to be processed, approvals will be delayed: The Frederick County Board of Zoning Appeals and the Planning Commission both have suspended all hearings until further notice.
A new and rapidly changing landscape requires the assistance of zoning, land use, and municipal law attorneys are well-versed in local codes, procedures, and regulations, and who have the relationships that allow them to quickly reach the right staff members for virtual meetings and guidance on novel issues.
You might also need to consider how a change to your pending application process, deadlines, and filings might impact your pre-negotiated contracts, which are oftentimes contingent on obtaining certain approvals by specific dates. If those deadlines cannot be met, you may need to give advanced notice, amend or extend your deal, or even renegotiate it entirely.
We continue to assist clients in this rapidly changing landscape, and are keeping on top of new orders, policies, and regulations as they evolve. If you need advice in managing these new hurdles in the agency review process, or are facing governmental delays and contract disputes, call Peter E. Ciferri, Esq. at (240) 778-2307 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for a consultation.