Planning and Development Process Complaints Investigation

In May 2021, Kristin Collins, an attorney for several Sanford businesses, presented a letter to the City Council expressing their dissatisfaction with Sanford’s planning and development review process. In response, the Council retained independent Attorney James Katsiaficas to investigate the complaints and submit a report.

At the City Council meeting on September 21, City Manager Steven Buck spent considerable time going through the report of the results of the investigation, and added comments of his own on how the City might take action on the findings.

Among the report’s findings and recommendations:

  • The frequency of land use ordinance changes and delay in updating them is a real issue that hinders compliance with, and enforcement of, the ordinances, and is a problem for both the business community and the City. The recommendation is for the online version of the Zoning Ordinance to be made current and kept up to date, and for the City to make this a priority. Mr. Buck responded that the online ordinances are in the process of being updated and the new system should be operational by the end of October.
  • Regarding complaints that the Planning Department makes up rules where the Ordinances are unclear, the recommendation was to amend the Zoning Ordinance to address recurring technical issues, particularly with regard to gravel pits, which are the subject of most complaints. Mr. Buck responded that the Mineral Extraction Task Force is hard at work on this, and has a deadline of March 2022 to finish the job.
  • The business community is reluctant to accept any peer review of its own engineers’ plans and opinions, despite the fact that most Maine municipalities require it. Sanford developed in-house capacity to review many projects in an attempt to be more business-friendly by saving applicants money on third-party reviews, but that seems to have backfired, as applicants are not convinced that in-house staff has the technical expertise required. The recommendation is for the Planning Department and the business community to work together to reach consensus on when in-house review is appropriate, and when third party review is necessary. Mr. Buck responded that some of this has already been done, as the gravel pit licensing requirements have recently been modified.
  • Regarding complaints about last-minute technical issues and ordinance violations, the finding was that the City’s compressed review timeline (again, in an attempt to be more business-friendly) was actually causing a lot of problems by not given applicants enough time to make changes, and not giving Planning Board members enough time to review comments by Site Plan Review Committee members. The recommendation is to rethink the compressed review timeline. Mr. Buck suggested that, rather than having the Planning Board review just one day after the Site Plan Review Committee, there should be a 30-day delay to enable everyone to catch up. He further recommended that the Site Plan Review Process be strengthened by not reviewing incomplete submissions.
  • Regulations regarding performance guarantees are unclear and misunderstood. The recommendation is for the Ordinances to clarify when a performance guarantee is required, and what it should be able to achieve.

In summary, the report found that allegations of government corruption, unethical practices and malicious intent are “over the top and unhelpful.” Communication delays have been more common in the past year due to Covid and a shortage of Planning Department staff. Changes intended to promote a more business-friendly atmosphere have had unintended consequences.

Mr. Buck showed the Council a timeline of several of the projects that resulted in the most complaints. Time and again, applications were found to be incomplete and sent back for additional information. In some cases, this process took years until the full information was finally received. If a policy to not review incomplete applications was instituted, it would save the Planning Department time and the applicants money.