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Outside Agency Permitting | 10 Steps to Master the Land Development Process

June 21st, 2022

Ten Steps to Master in the Land Development Process

This 10-part Blog series will highlight how to mitigate risks and avoid issues that commonly plague land development projects. We will help you understand how to properly navigate the main phases of the land development process to help avoid cost overruns and delays (and a whole lot of stress and anxiety). This is a collection of observations, recommendations, and advice from the perspective of a civil engineer who has worked side-by-side with a diverse set of developers on hundreds of land development projects over the past 25 years.

Topic 7: Outside Agency Permitting

As mentioned in the previous blog post to this series, project permitting is typically broken into two distinct categories: local approvals and outside agency approvals. Local approvals consist of gaining use and development permits from the municipality where the project is located. Outside agency approvals involve gaining permits and approvals from regional, state and federal agencies. Some examples of such agencies in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey areas include Department of Transportation (DOT), Conservation Districts, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and various utility authorities. Understanding how to manage this step is critical to the success of your land development project

1. Know the Process

Outside agency permitting is typically more administrative than local permitting. While local permitting entails more public hearings and meetings, outside agency permitting requires the navigation of the appropriate administrative path. Such agencies generally have rigid regulations and processes. Accordingly, permit application reviews are more defined in regards to compliance with such processes and regulations. Having a clear understanding of the processes, regulations and nuance (which comes with experience) is essential to successfully move a real estate deal forward quickly and efficiently.

Submission of a complete application and supporting materials through the appropriate channels is essential. Nothing is more frustrating to a developer than waiting months for a response from an agency only to find out that the application was deemed incomplete and starting the process over from the beginning. Prior experience is important, as is careful quality control and attention to detail on the part of your civil engineer.  If something about the application requirements or process is unclear – don’t guess; pick up the phone and talk to the agency. This can end up saving significant time for your project.

If the agency allows for electronic submission, take advantage of it. When it comes to cost and schedule, electronic submission can be more efficient, and provide a more transparent chain of review and status.

If the agency offers an expedited review process, take the time to fully understand it. Expedited reviews typically come with additional fees and they often have subtle strings attached.  For example, you may need to respond and resubmit to address any review comments within a certain number of days; make sure all such conditions are realistic for your project.  You don’t want to pay the additional expedited fee only to be kicked out of the process because you or your team couldn’t meet the expedited process requirements.  Be sure to understand the review process and discuss with your project team to determine if the extra costs and risks are worth it.

2. Know the Rules

This seems obvious, and it is, but the devil is often in the details. A deep knowledge of the regulations is key, as is experience in how the agency interprets and implements such regulations. Unlike local ordinances, many state, regional and federal regulations don’t have procedures for waivers or variances; you either fully comply and get your permit, or you don’t. Your design team needs to know and understand the rules and ensure that the project has been designed accordingly. These rules change regularly; be sure your team is current on any recent changes – as well as possible changes that are planned in the future.

3. Dealing with Review Comments

The recommendations on dealing with outside agency permitting review comments are the same as provided in the previous Landcore blog post about local permitting. Assess, clarify, communicate, and deal with review comments as expeditiously as possible. This is where time is most often lost. Limit your revisions and resubmissions, and you limit your time and expense.

4. Know When to Ask For Help

Sometimes, even the most seasoned civil engineers and consultants are going to run into issues that simply require more force to resolve.  Maybe there is an agency reviewer that is overstepping the boundaries of the regulations; perhaps an agency is unresponsive, unreasonable, or moving at an unreasonably slow pace. In such circumstances, political influence (state senators/legislators and above) may be necessary to move the project forward. 

Alternatively, or in addition, there are a myriad of lobbyist and expeditors for hire.  Some of these options come with significant costs so you will need to determine if such costs are worth it for your project. Such measures should be used wisely and at the appropriate time (often earlier, preemptive use can be better and less costly than later, reactive use).

There are many items for a developer to consider during the outside agency permitting phase of a project but being deliberate in approach and using the above recommendations will go a long way. Following these best practices will influence other steps within the land development process and allow you to get to the finish line efficiently. Stay tuned for our next blog where we will dive into best practices for pre-construction planning.

The above article is the sixth in our series of “10 Steps to Master in the Land Development Process”. Previous articles are linked below. Subscribe to the Blog to be notified of future articles in the series.

Landcore’s staff have been through thousands of projects – reach out to us to leverage our knowledge on your next deal.


Matthew Rutt, President