Under the proposal, Waterville would slash wait times for development reviews to two weeks.
Downtown Waterville is seen in February 2019. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

WATERVILLE, Maine — Waterville would be the third Maine city to streamline processes typically done by a state agency, speeding up development and building renovation projects.

Over the last three years, the most common complaint has been the length of time it takes the Maine fire marshal’s office to provide feedback to developers, said Shawn Esler, Waterville’s fire chief. It takes about six to eight weeks, and Esler has even heard 12, he told the Waterville City Council during a meeting Tuesday night.

“They often don’t return phone calls very well, and it leaves the developer out there,” he said, noting the state team does good work, but it’s understaffed like others in the state. “In some cases, it will either kill or stall a project.”

A process, called delegated review, essentially allows Waterville’s code enforcement and fire departments to “become a one-stop shop” that replaces the fire marshal’s office when it comes to reviewing developers’ plans. Projects would still be submitted to the state, but the city is delegated to handle reviews and inspections, Esler said.

The program is the latest example of Waterville finding ways to operate more efficiently and encourage economic development. Sanford will serve as a model, and Portland is the other city using such a process. Esler said it would speed up development and renovations, make the city more business friendly and entice developers to pursue more work in the city.

The city would slash wait times for reviews to two weeks, he said. Permit fees also would be lower, and developers would have local people to contact with questions.

Projects go through the city’s Planning Board for proper zoning, then to the fire marshal’s office for approval. Waterville’s code enforcement and fire departments step in afterward, so being a delegated review community eliminates a step, Esler said. Municipalities also review projects, like housing, that the fire marshal’s office does not.

Once a building is finished, the two departments inspect the property to make sure it follows previously approved plans and is safe to occupy, he said.

Waterville’s code enforcement and fire departments have started to work more closely, and Esler sees this as a next logical step. For example, he said, code enforcement moved into the fire station and a deputy chief was hired to oversee inspections, which are steps outlined in the city’s 2014 comprehensive plan.

Esler also acknowledged disadvantages, such as losing technical support from the fire marshal’s office and about $50,000 a year in revenue, which goes into the city’s capital improvement account.

Maine doesn’t encourage delegated review communities because funds are funneled into a municipality rather than the state agency, Esler said. The fire marshal’s office would only allow Waterville to charge 4 cents per square foot on its permit fees, instead of its current fee structure, he said.

Legislative action would allow Waterville to charge the same fees as the state, which is a route Waterville could choose to pursue, the chief said.

“I think the real question here is whether the city wants to give up a small amount of fees that we collect for inspections in return for speeding up the development process substantially,” Councilor Claude Francke said.

Esler, who worked with Sanford to better understand the process, said it has brought multi-million-dollar projects to the city. The loss in permit fees was made up through taxation of these properties, he said.

The process “puts us on the map” and would make Waterville more attractive to people wanting to open businesses, Councilor Michael Morris said.

Interim City Manager William Post noted it might lead developers to build in Waterville instead of a neighboring town. It’s another tool in the toolbox for those working on economic growth in the city, he said.

Under delegated review, the fire marshal’s office would still maintain jurisdiction of Maine Department of Health and Human Services facilities like hospitals, Esler said.

Councilors did not vote, but they gave Esler the go-ahead to continue the process leading to delegated review. It would involve modifying a public safety ordinance and creating an appeals process, among other measures.