Council reviews software solution for land use processes

Land use processes in Charlottesville are getting an upgrade.

The City Council on Wednesday discussed ways to increase the efficiency of the Department of Neighborhood Development Services. The department reviews all new developments and manages several affordable housing initiatives for the city.

“We have a [software] system right now that is grossly inefficient,” said NDS Director Alexander Ikefuna. “Staff that are connected to it can’t talk to each other, which was one of the reasons why I initiated this process. … We are probably 15 years backwards in terms of best practices.”

In 2017, Cincinnati-based Novak Consulting Group completed an assessment of the efficiency of all city departments. In the report, the group suggested several ways to make NDS function more smoothly. The city asked the group to describe those recommendations more fully in a second study. The combined cost of the two studies was $143,450.

Novak published the Neighborhood Development Services Review in February, but Monday was the first time the council discussed the report in depth.

“What we found in NDS a year ago was a department that was certainly struggling because of the workload. … I think that speaks directly to an organization’s ability to be innovative and to be proactive,” said Michelle Ferguson, the organizational assessment leader for Novak.

Ferguson said that the city performed well as a whole and that individuals within NDS were passionate about their jobs. In the report, Novak recommended that NDS hire several new staff members, rebalance employee workloads, and provide better technology to their staff.

NDS has implemented multiple recommendations and needs the council’s approval to move forward with others — including a new software system for the NDS, Public Works, Parks and Recreation and Utilities departments.

The system would allow the city to manage developments, and the infrastructure that often goes with them, in one place. It would also allow staff members to forward citizen feedback to the right department and allow members of the public to see each stage of a development as it moves forward in the review process.

Because the software will be customized to the city’s workflow, the NDS system likely will go live in late 2020. Councilor Heather Hill asked whether it would be possible to put development site plans online for the public earlier than that date.

“I’ll use the county as an example. They have a pretty established file structure system that the public can easily access. I think it would save staff a lot of time from having to always handle those things one-on-one,” Hill said.

Interim City Manager Mike Murphy said that staff would offer the council feedback on the request in December.

Councilor Kathy Galvin worried that more efficient software was solving the wrong problem.

“Why are we expediting the development review process when the zoning we have right now leads to built outcomes that are not appreciated by the public?” Galvin asked.

Ikefuna agreed that the city’s zoning was a fundamental issue for staff.

“The city’s zoning ordinance — I’m sorry to say — is a wastebasket of errors. … It makes it extremely difficult for a zoning administrator to effectively provide zoning review letters and so on to the applicant,” Ikefuna said. “Until we change our zoning to make it what it is supposed to be, I think we are going to continue to have a problem.”

The Planning Commission is in the midst of reviewing the Comprehensive Plan, which expresses the city’s vision for land use, housing, transportation and beyond. The commission hopes to tackle the city’s zoning map after the City Council approves the plan.

The Planning Commission is set discuss the land use map for the Comprehensive Plan at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the NDS Conference Room in City Hall.