There’s no doubt about it, Windham is growing as a community, a summer destination for tourists and commercial center for both small and big business.

But – as evidenced recently with several major development projects – developers, both residential and commercial, often struggle through a convoluted planning process in order to reach final approval.

For the past three months, the Windham Planning Board has explored ways to smooth out their planning process. Currently, “one out of ten applications” go through the approval process without much delay, Planning Board Chairwoman Kathleen Brown said. She said the board hopes to improve that record to “eight out of ten” by the end of next summer.

The board identified that 68 percent of time spent reviewing potential projects is a result of “rework and delay.” That adds up to 4,546 hours a year, including planning staff and board time. Incomplete applications, lack of clear ordinances, and lack of “resource management” due to the volume of development were cited as problems that have “bogged down” the process.

At best, a developer goes from pre-application to final approval in five board meetings. At worst, the developer must slog through almost a dozen meetings. In the case of Sebago Heights, a 91-house residential development, the developers worked for over two years with the board to reach final approval, and, even then, the board had to deal with several important issues at the final meeting.

In discussions with the Town Council, the board presented both the problems and possible remedies to the planning dilemma.

“We’re at the point now that we recognize planning is a community issue,” Chairwoman Brown told the council. Problems in the approval process can create public frustration, confusion and disillusionment, she said.

And though Windham runs very well with volunteer boards such as the planning board, there is a limit to what volunteers can do, Brown noted.

To this end, the board hired Nancy Forrester of Biscaye Consultants to “look at the effectiveness of the process” and create a strategy to improve the process.

The board, under Forrester’s guidance, offered solutions such as creating approval criteria so the developer would know what to expect up front, assessment of neighborhood impacts, development of road standards, impact fees for infrastructure improvements and general reorganization of the approval process.

Admittedly, 50 percent of the problem rests with the board. However, the board complains of having to deal with out-of-date land use ordinances and receiving incomplete applications and last minute information from the planning department. The board also complains that the “planning department doesn’t function” properly because of lack of staff.

“Many times we are getting last minute information and have to make on the spot decisions,” said Planning Board member James Seymour.

Windham Town Planner George Dycio is the “hub of the wheel” behind the planning process. And with the number of developers interested in Windham, Dycio’s job is never finished.

“You put down one thing and pick another up,” Dycio said.

Dycio admits that he receives many incomplete applications and many go the Planning Board as incomplete. There is a general misunderstanding that once a developer submits an application, they can have their first meeting in two weeks. But this is simply not true, Dycio says.

The current wait time – from application submittal to first board meeting – is more like a month to two months. Currently, there are a dozen developers waiting for their first preliminary meeting. And the planning staff is “not doing the applicant any favors” by sending projects for board review before they are ready, Dycio said. This can result in “too many meetings” and backtracking that can be frustrating for staff, board members and developers.

Dycio commends the board for initiating this overhaul of the planning process, which is above and beyond the responsibilities of a volunteer board.

While Dycio recognizes the overall issues, much of the problems with his office, he says, are due to the “nature of beast.” Staff is small and the space is cramped with little room for filing, Dycio said. Money is available to hire new planning staff, but the town has been waiting until the town annex is renovated and town office space is reorganized.

Dycio believes there needs to be an education of the developers up front and that all developers should meet with “a development team” before submitting an application. These development teams are comprised of Dycio and other department heads, like the police chief and fire chief, to look over any preliminary concerns.

“If the developers have clear direction up front, they’ll know what is expected from them,” Dycio said.

The board also recommended that the town’s out-of-date ordinances be overhauled by professional help. At the time, Dycio helps draft and revise the ordinances with the Ordinance Review Committee.

These ordinances are the guidelines the board must follow in instructing developers how they can and cannot build. Out-of-date or unclear ordinances leads to the confusion of developers, staff and board members, the board said.

In accordance with state law, ordinances need to be consistent with the town’s ten-year Comprehensive Master Plan, a detailed strategy to help Windham plan for their future. Windham completed their new comprehensive plan in August of 2003, though it has not yet been approved by the state.

Forrester will continue working with the board to implement their strategy for improving the process. Many of their recommendations will require adminstrative or town council approval.

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