If you are trying to get your project moving from concept to reality, you may already have some idea of the hurdles facing you during the entitlements and design stages. These stages are crucial, as they lay the legal and conceptual foundations for your project. Through these stages, you will be challenged with navigating the labyrinth of overlapping authorities that have the power to approve or deny your project. Understanding these authorities, and how to navigate them, can prove to be taxing and costly for most developers looking to get their project off the ground.

What many people outside of the construction industry don’t realize is how project managers can help assist you in navigating both the entitlements stage as well as the design stage. In this article, we’ll explore the interaction between the role of project managers and the entitlements and design stages. Specifically, we’ll look at why utilizing the services of a project manager is highly recommended during these stages. The reality is that a project manager can save you time and money moving through the entitlements and design stages, reducing the time it takes you to break ground on your project and helping your organization surmount any legal hurdles that may exist.

The truth is that many of the same advantages that project managers bring to other stages of a construction project are also beneficial during the entitlements and design stages. Project managers can streamline these processes by relying on a foundation of knowledge and expertise that allows them to identify potential problems before they become big issues. Project managers assist in streamlining the construction process through coordination and oversight efforts, which are also critically important during the entitlements and design stages. By streamlining each phase of a construction project, project managers are able to reduce the time each stage takes, thereby bringing down total cost in both the pre-construction phases as well as once you have broken ground.

What are Construction Entitlements?

If you have a concept for a construction project you are hoping to build, you may or may not be aware of the importance that entitlements will have on bringing your project to life. The fact is that many individuals and organizations involved in real-estate development don’t understand what entitlements are and the critical role they play in projects. What is often misunderstood is the relationship between entitlements and building permits, which can each play an important role in bringing your project to fruition.

The entitlements stage of a construction project occurs before the permitting process and may occur either before or concurrently to the design process. From the outset, understand that the entitlements stage is considered a pre-construction stage, meaning that any entitlements you are working for must occur before any construction can begin. To understand this a little better, consider that there are two types of ways that development projects move through the regulatory process that occurs during the pre-construction stage. One is known as “by right development” which occurs when a planned building or development conforms to all applicable zoning requirements. In this scenario, building permits can be issued without any need to move through a municipal city planning committee for approval. If a proposed project doesn’t conform to all zoning requirements for that specific piece of land, the project must go apply for special land-use permits which are known as entitlements.

The term entitlements refer to land-use permits that must be approved. These often include things like variances, zoning amendments, tax relief, or infrastructure agreements. Given this, you might be wondering how the entitlements process works and is project management important for this step of the process. In order to get a project approved so that building permits can be issued, the development must go through the entitlements process. First, a development that requires entitlements will need to complete an application process for the specific land-use entitlements that are required to build the project. Once this application has been submitted, there is generally a required public hearing. These public hearings allow individuals or interested parties to voice support or objectives for a proposed project. This public testimony will be included in the final decision-making process for approval or denial of a land-use entitlement.

During the entitlements process, most developers will also need to submit study reports, such as on the environmental impact of the project, as well as meet with key government officials that oversee the approval of the project. They may also have to meet with civic groups and leaders to discuss the proposed project. After one or more public hearings occur, the decision-making body that approves the land-use entitlements will issue a decision either approving or denying the entitlements. If the entitlement is approved, the project can move forward to secure building permits. If the entitlements are denied, there is generally an appeal process that takes place that may involve further public hearings and in which a different authority will decide on whether to overturn the previous decision.

There are a couple of things that are important to note about this entire process. The first is that securing entitlements can be extremely complex. A proposed development that needs to secure entitlements must navigate a web of overlapping authorities and municipal rules and regulations. Given that there is almost always a public hearing involved in securing approval for entitlements, there must be efforts to make the real impact of a project as well as the benefits it may bring more clear to the community it will be built in. At the same time, securing approval for entitlements requires working closely with officials in local government. All of these factors increase the complexity of getting approval for the entitlements you are seeking. The second thing to note about the entitlements process is that it can be long and arduous. In some cases, this process takes months or even years. The end result of this is lengthy timeline is higher pre-construction costs for most projects that need land-use entitlements.

How do Project Managers Help With Entitlements and Design?

Now that we have basic knowledge about what entitlements are, you might be wondering “why do i need a project manager” to navigate and manage the entitlements process? While you could attempt to go through the entitlements process on your own, there are several important reasons why you should strongly consider using a project manager from the outset. Although the outline of the entitlements process we provided is very broad, it should be clear at this point that navigating this experience can be very time-consuming. Many large and complex developments spend months or years navigating this process. Also, keep in mind that there is no guarantee that at the end of the process your project will be approved.

Given the significant time and monetary investment that goes along with seeking land-use entitlements, many developers choose to work with a project manager to oversee the construction management process. There are many advantages to doing so. First, effective project managers are subject-matter experts in navigating the complex process of seeking approval for land-use entitlements. Project managers will typically have an in-depth knowledge of local zoning requirements and will be able to quickly identify where a land-use entitlement is required for a project to get off the ground. They will also have a sense of whether a specific land-use entitlement will be approved in a given area. Project managers will also typically be comfortable serving as a liaison with the city officials and civic groups that must be consulted during the entitlement approval process.

A second advantage that project managers bring to the entitlements process is that they are able to identify problems early on. If you have a specific piece of land in mind, a good project manager will probably be able to quickly assess the proposed project and let you know of any conflicts that will arise during the entitlements process. If these issues are a non-starter, your project manager can notify you before you sink time and money getting the project approved. Alongside this, project managers can help you navigate the process from beginning to end, and find alternative routes to approval that you may not have identified from the outset.

Also, remember that the entitlements process can occur either before or alongside the design stage. If you aren’t sure of why this might matter, consider that land-use entitlements are largely centered around site design. Given this, you may be able to make design changes that allow your development to adhere to relevant zoning requirements and avoid the entitlements process entirely. Alternatively, you may be able to implement design changes that increase the chances that a project’s entitlements will be approved at the end of the process.

Navigating both the entitlements and design stages concurrently can be daunting, and requires close coordination between team members to ensure that both entities are on the same page. Like many other aspects of a complex development project, project managers are responsible for ensuring that information is flowing freely from one team to another. This is crucially important if both the entitlements and design stages are moving concurrently. Typically this is the case, as you will most likely be required to submit preliminary designs. These designs can play a central role in the approval process for land-use entitlements, and they will feature prominently in any public hearing on the matter as well as potentially be required to go before an architectural review board.

The interaction between securing land-use entitlements and the design stages can be incredibly complex and requires direct oversight and coordination. Both efforts must be synchronized in order to improve your chances of project approval. One of the key ways that project managers add value to any stage of a construction project is through the coordination of each of the various entities that are required to complete it. This is true of the entitlements and design stages as well. Through effective coordination, project managers ensure that the effort to get land-use entitlements approved informs the production of preliminary designs, while at the same time working to make sure that project designs align closely with the client’s desired project outcome.

While coordination of between the design team and the entitlements phase is important, it is far from the only way that project managers help facilitate getting your project off of the ground. Consider the complexity that surrounds securing land-use entitlements. Applications must be completed and submitted, public hearings scheduled, notices sent to relevant parties, and meetings must occur between your team and city or civic group authorities. All of this requires a large amount of time, effort, and close attention to detail. If any aspect of this process is missed or overlooked it can result in costly delays, or the need to start the process over again from the beginning. Project managers help avoid either of these outcomes by ensuring that all required paperwork is submitted when required and that all requirements for the land-use entitlements application are completed throughout the process.

Closing Thoughts

Although utilizing construction project management services during the entitlements and design stages is not explicitly required, the complex web of overlapping authorities and requirements that must be navigated during this time period can be extremely challenging for individuals that aren’t familiar with the process. Securing land-use entitlements is often a time-consuming process. Delays can result in higher pre-construction costs, so getting it right the first time is essential for adhering to budgetary restrictions. Project managers assist during these stages by having an in-depth familiarity with both the process and any relevant regulatory or legal requirements that may exist. Through this knowledge, they are able to quickly identify problems before they impact the process. Importantly, project managers can work with both the client and design team to formulate a strategy that gives your project the best chances of successfully securing land-use entitlements.

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By Kirt Gilliland

Jan 07, 2019