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Faster Plan Review Turnarounds Are Within Your Reach

Faster Plan Review Turnarounds Are Within Your Reach

Whether you’re a city administrator, community development leader, or building official, you’re probably all too familiar with the frustrations that go along with building plan review delays. Construction booms can bring an onslaught of permit applications that your staff might not be equipped to handle, yet the thought of hiring more reviewers during these peak times — only to find your department overstaffed when construction activity wanes — is equally stressful.

What’s the Problem?

Imagine if you could trade out building plan review backlogs, customer complaints, and vacant lots for faster plan review turnarounds, consistent service, and a thriving community? Here are a few tricks of the trade — proven techniques that help municipalities stand out to developers, keep residents happy, avoid budget shortfalls, and enhance their communities.

Consider a New Approach

By taking four intentional steps to make your department more efficient, you can achieve significant reductions in permit turnaround times. 

Step 1: Streamline plan reviews  

The first big step toward faster building plan reviews is actually a handful of small steps, all of which lead to a better, smarter process for your municipality. In order to improve efficiencies and keep up with development, it’s important to implement these approaches to plan reviews:

  • Standardized submittal forms
  • Clear submittal checklists
  • Pre-screening process

To ramp up the efficiency of your plan review process even further, think about leveraging electronic plan review (EPR): Mercer Island, Bellevue, College Place, and many other cities in Washington State have used EPR.

Step 2: Implement proactive performance goals and metrics

The second step toward a timelier building plan review process might seem commonsense, but it’s one that can easily slip through the cracks in the midst of the craziness and chaos that comes during busy plan review seasons. Taking the time upfront to establish proactive performance goals and metrics is critical to gauging your department’s progress so it can improve over time. Kitsap’s Peak Program tracks building and site review statistics and other important organizational metrics.

Step 3: Encourage rock-solid communication

Communication, both among municipal staff and externally with customers, is a critical component to speeding up the plan review process. Internally, department supervisors should provide a well-defined plan review process for examiners to follow. This process can include:

  • Internal checklists
  • Plan review timelines
  • Handouts detailing codes and regulations

I’ve already addressed the necessity of giving customers clear submittal guidelines and checklists for completing permit applications, but it’s also essential that department staff know how to verbally communicate correct instructions, guidelines, and expectations to developers and residents when needed. Check out Bellingham’s Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Permit Experience for ideas.

Step 4: Get flexible, experienced staffing

To effectively deal with fluctuating workloads and large projects that can throw a wrench into even the best laid plans, municipalities should also consider options for supplementing their staff during busy times.

The demand for development review services is cyclical and is closely aligned with economic cycles. During short-term, busy times, additional development review needs may be fulfilled through hiring temporary staff, contracting with individual consulting planners, or hiring a third-party plan review company. Each of these options should be evaluated based on criteria such as how well they allow your organization to:

  • handle changing workloads;
  • manage ups and downs in construction activity;
  • best serve your customers with the ability to be responsive;
  • minimize internal and external strife,
  • maintain consistency with existing labor contracts, and;
  • reduce budget risk.


Building plan review backlogs are an increasingly common problem for communities across the nation. For municipalities fed up with these burdens and geared up for change, there’s a 4-step process for obliterating those backlogs and achieving timely plan review turnarounds.

With a streamlined approach to plan reviews, proactive performance goals and metrics, rock-solid communication, and flexible, experienced staffing, you can reach higher efficiencies and better results for your municipality, for your customers, and for your community.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Rich Conrad

Rich Conrad is the WA Business Development Representative for SAFEbuilt. Prior to joining SAFEbuilt, Rich worked in Washington local government for 35 years with last 17 as City Manager at the City of Mercer Island.

SAFEbuilt was founded in 1992 for the sole purpose of providing exceptional building department services to local governments. Today, SAFEbuilt is one of the leading nationwide providers of value-added professional technical and consulting services.

Rich is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.