Column: Getting Ahead by Planning Ahead

Why it’s never too early to prepare for economic recovery

As the end of the year approaches, we all hoped to see indicators of strong economic growth in Southwest Washington for 2011. Unfortunately, current economic forecasts suggest continued slow growth in the region for the coming year. While hopes are for a more robust recovery sooner rather than later, slow growth may be considered an opportunity, especially for businesses hoping to benefit from a return to economic expansion in 2012 and beyond, by providing lead time to make the necessary preparations to hit the ground running once a recovery becomes clear. 

Time for the construction industry to look ahead

The construction industry, in particular, has been hard hit in the current downturn. While market demand for new residential, commercial or industrial development remains lax, builders and developers can take certain steps to take advantage of the predicted stronger economy in 2012. One important step is to ensure that projects or sites are "shovel-ready" when demand returns. Having a project at that stage means all of the necessary permits and entitlements to begin construction have been secured. Unfortunately, some of the permits and entitlements that may be needed cannot be obtained overnight. 

As land use and environmental regulations evolve, the time frames necessary to apply for and obtain the necessary development approvals continue to lengthen. Therein lies the opportunity. To be one of the first projects under construction when market demand returns, developers should start evaluating the permits and entitlements necessary to build a particular project now, particularly any permit or approval with a long lead time.

Start tackling the lengthy wetland permit process

For proposed new development on a property that has never been developed, it is very possible that a wetland permit will be required. Thanks to a combination of sufficient rainfall and specific soil types that offer limited infiltration potential, many farmed fields, pasture land and other undeveloped properties (especially in the areas in and around Battle Ground, LaCenter, Ridgefield, Camas and Washougal) contain some wetlands. 

To evaluate whether a future project may trigger the need for a wetland permit, it’s necessary to hire a qualified consultant to determine if wetlands are present on the project site. Then the project proponent, in consultation with its wetland consultant and project engineer, must determine if the wetlands will be impacted by the proposed project and calculate the area of wetlands to be impacted. The area impacted dictates the type of permit required. If the impacted area exceeds 0.50 acres, the project must obtain an individual wetland permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps).

Obtaining an individual permit from Corps is a very complex and time consuming process. It involves evaluating alternative sites and alternative designs for a project, as well as providing detailed plans for mitigating any impacts that will be unavoidable. From start to finish, this process with Corps can, and generally does, require 18 to 24 months or more to complete.

Other permits to consider when planning ahead

Other permits and entitlements that may have long lead times include conditional use permits, subdivision or site plan approvals and Endangered Species Act consultation. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, these approvals can require six months to a year (or longer) to complete. Therefore, it’s not too early to get started on evaluating the permitting needs for future projects, especially if preparing to take advantage of the expected stronger economy in 2012.

There is one caveat: all of the permits mentioned above do require specific information about a proposed project to be submitted for review, including detailed site plans and drawings showing building orientation and other engineering information. Given the uncertainty about the economy, providing this level of detail can be difficult if the final plans or ultimate design for the project hinges on expectations for the region’s economic growth. Nevertheless, these plans and drawings can be conceptual in the initial stages of the review process, which allows developers and builders to get the process started ahead of the recovering market demand.

Steven F. Hill is a partner in the Vancouver office of Miller Nash LLP. His practice focuses on Environmental and Natural Resources. He can be reached at 360.699.4771