When is a Development Application Ready for Review?
If you spend some time around a city or county permit center, you are likely to hear applicants and staff talk about what it takes to make a development application complete, and you may wonder what all the fuss is about.
One reason for their interest is that for some types of development proposals, such as building plans (RCW 19.27.095) or proposed land subdivisions (RCW 58.17.033), the current set of local regulations vest to that proposed project only after its application is deemed complete by the local permit staff.
A second reason why application completeness is important is because it starts the state-mandated, 120-day time clock within which local governments are required to review and make a decision on many types of development proposals (see Chapter 36.70B RCW).
Under state law there is a set time period within which many local governments need to make a determination about whether an application is complete or incomplete. RCW 36.70B.070(1) requires local governments fully planning under the Growth Management Act to provide a notice of completeness (or one stating that the application is incomplete and what is required to make it complete) within 28 days after receiving a project permit application.
Approaches to Determining Application Completeness
So, how do local governments actually determine what is a complete versus an incomplete application? State law attempts to provide some guidance with RCW 36.70B.070(2) stating:
A project permit application is complete for purposes of this section when it meets the procedural submission requirements of the local government and is sufficient for continued processing even though additional information may be required or project modifications may be undertaken subsequently.
But what is meant by the phrases “sufficient for continued processing” and “even though additional information may be required?” Local permitting staff usually take one of three approaches to interpreting this language: quantitative, qualitative, or hybrid.
Quantitative (“Strict Use of Checklist”) Approach
Many local governments interpret this statutory language to mean that an application is complete when a quick staff review finds that the procedural submission requirements have been met (i.e., when all of the information listed on a submission checklist is included with an application packet, regardless of the quality). The City of Edmonds uses this approach, as evident in their Handouts & Forms webpage.
A major point in favor of this method is that the review can be done fairly quickly and the development review clock can still be stopped later if the development review staff determine that additional information is needed to finish the substantive review of the proposed project.
Qualitative (“Thorough Review of Initial Submittal”) Approach
For other communities, an application will not be deemed complete until the submitted materials contain enough information to actually allow a staff person to begin reviewing the application for compliance with all local code standards (see Lacey’s permit processing guidelines for an example).
Proponents of this approach believe that it prevents an incomplete and potentially ill-planned proposal from vesting under current standards. It also gives staff more certainty that that they can efficiently review the submitted information and make substantive comments at one time, rather than getting bogged down with identifying additional information that is needed and then having to wait for it to be provided by the applicant.
One downside to this method, however, is that it requires extra staff time at the front end to more comprehensively review the application materials.
A few local governments will primarily use the quantitative approach but still deem an application incomplete if it is significantly deficient in one or more areas.
To illustrate this approach, there was an actual case where an applicant submitted a geotechnical report for another nearby project, hoping it would be adequate to vest the permit application. In that case, the application was deemed incomplete and the applicant asked to provide the required technical information for the applicable development site.
Steps to Consider
Regardless of which approach you decide to take, I would recommend that local governments undertake the following:
- Explicitly define what is needed to be submitted for an application to be deemed complete;
- Provide clear checklists for development applications;
- Hold pre-application meetings with applicants to clarify what needs to be included in an application submittal; and
- Consider setting a time limit related to expiration of a complete application, if one doesn’t already exist, to address the concern that a development application (whether well or poorly conceived) may lie dormant in your permit intake files for years and years.
Since state law does not provide specific direction regarding what constitutes a complete application or the procedures associated with such a determination, it is advisable that each local government take proactive steps to establish procedures regarding complete applications.
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