Winston-Salem developers look to Greensboro for hope

The developers did most of the talking and city staff did most of the listening this morning at what was the last public comment session of the Development Review-Related Advisory Committee. Charlie Sweigart, vice president of Taylor Development Group, tried to refrain from telling “horror stories,” but that feeling distinctly textured his remarks about efforts to navigate the city of Winston-Salem’s permitting process.

He found a sympathetic ear from Stan Senft, the vice-chair of the committee and a vice president of McNair Construction. Senft noted that developers must deal with seven separate city departments in the process of completing a project. The committee is planning a Valentines Day field trip to neighboring Greensboro to learn about the city’s development services department, a one-stop shop that has been lauded for streamlining local government bureaucracy to help developers expedite projects.

“They’re kind of our competitor in a friendly way,” Senft said.

“The impression I have is that if I walk into their office and want to have a Friday meeting, they can assemble their folks in one hour [to review plans],” he added after the session. “I think I can even come unannounced.”

Sweigart indicated that approach would be a welcome change from what he has experienced dealing with the city of Winston-Salem during the development of Arbor Place, a community marketed to elderly residents near the tony Buena Vista neighborhood, about four years ago.

“As you look at this process, I think there could be some advantage to have some kind of central oversight so that a single department, for example public safety in their silo, doesn’t have the power to veto a project.”

Sweigart lamented that a decision by a single department blocked a phase of the project from going forward and deprived the city of significant tax assessments.

After the public comment session, he explained: “We wanted to take the streets private to make it a gated community. It’s about half built out. If we were to take it private it would be three-quarters built out. Taking the streets private would eliminate through traffic. Public safety — they like through traffic. I understand that. When there’s a fire, the fire trucks need to be able to get in and out.”

During session Sweigart emphasized his displeasure with the typical review process.

“I got two infill projects, and it’s like I’m in a mud wrestling match with two different departments,” he said. “I thought you wanted infill. And then you just get thrown up against the wall. It’s maddening.”

Developers also expressed frustration about variations in code interpretations from one city inspector to another.

“You feel like you have to shop for a responsive inspector,” Senft said, summing up sentiment in the group.

An engineering consultant that attended the session said the city’s sequencing doesn’t always make sense. For example, the city required a client to submit plans for a driveway before issuing a grading permit, but sometimes developers want grade a site to make it more saleable before they know where the driveway needs to be located.

Developers also complained about the city requiring new sidewalk along the roadways adjacent to building sites, even in places where pedestrian demand is light. People in the industry have a derogatory term for the phenomenon: “sidewalks to nowhere.”

Their counterparts in Greensboro feel their pain. Despite streamlining the review process, the city in Triad East hasn’t cut developers much slack on this count. Illustration: The Jordan Creek subdivision located on satellite-annexed parcel on Mackay Road features sidewalk extending to the property lines along the roadway and then abruptly ending.

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