Doing away with the "Department of 'No'"

Is the city doing all it can to bring in new business?

Members of the Dover city council don’t think so, and they have ordered Dave Hugg, acting director of planning and community development, to dig into the problem.

Fourth District Councilman David Anderson introduced the idea in July via a council resolution, which he dubbed “Making Dover Prosper.” It is based on a January workshop where council members discussed their long-term goals for the city.

Council approved the resolution Aug. 14.

“We were getting into policy and what we said were going to be our priorities,” Anderson said. That included making Dover more business friendly by modernizing administrative processes and making it easier to work with city officials.

“We needed to be more competitive in the modern world,” Anderson said. “Some of our regulations are more than 50 or 60 years old.”

Department of ‘No’

Hugg has until the end of October to present his findings and recommend changes.

The acting director -- who served for many years as Smyrna’s community planner -- said a priority would be fighting the notion, whether real or anecdotal, that Dover is not a business-friendly community.

“By and large, what we’ve heard is that our review periods, our site plan reviews, are very time-consuming and tended to delay projects,” Hugg said. “I’ve heard this department often was called “The Department of No”.

“We weren’t known for reading outside the specification of our ordinances,” he added. “We weren’t working with an applicant to find ways to come close to what they wanted to do.”

The staff also tended to read into its regulations, sometimes making suggestions others took as requirements.

For example, if city codes mandate a minimum number of trees and planners thought the site could benefit from more trees than required, they’d put that down as a suggestion to the planning commission. Those suggestions, however, tended to be taken more as requirements, sometimes burdening applicants with more than they believed necessary.

He can’t say for certain developers dropped plans to work in Dover or even rejected Dover outright.

“I’ve been told there were projects that didn’t go forward and there were developers who said they weren’t going to work in Dover because we were too difficult to deal with, too hard to work with,” Hugg said.

That sometimes difficult reputation hasn’t stopped investors from coming to the Capital City, but Hugg thinks some changes will encourage more.

It will take a little more of a hands-on, sit-down-with-a-cup-of-coffee approach, he said.

“There is a lot of money out there waiting for things to happen,” Hugg said. “The earlier you come in and talk about [a project], the sooner we can get on the same page.”

It’s a philosophy he followed while in Smyrna.

“The idea is to open lines of communication early and to communicate often and regularly,” he said.

Some administrative, in-house changes already have been made, and his office is at work updating city ordinances. Those, Hugg said, must be approved by city council.

“The analogy I like to use is that this is sort of like eating an elephant -- it has to be done one bite at a time,” he said.

The 21st century

Hugg will work with acting city manager Donna Mitchell to come up with a “road map” for city services, with the idea of making information easily available to the public and investors.

Additionally, they’re tasked with streamlining licensing, inspections and permitting. This will require new computer systems that already are under development, Hugg said. Once that’s done, for example, developers will be able to track the progress of an application.

One idea, similar to what he used in Smyrna, is a way to expedite processing large projects by allowing developers to start building before they receive approved permits from state entities, including DelDOT and DNREC.

That involves a hazard to the developer in that something might come up requiring an expensive or time-consuming change in plans, he said. But some developers may be willing to take on that risk, Hugg said.

It’s a long-term process that probably will stretch out past December when Hugg’s contract expires. Despite the fact he is already retired, Hugg is willing to stay on in Dover.

“I did retire once, and I didn’t like it,” he said. “I got bored, so I’ll do this as long as it’s fun.”

Anderson thinks the “Make Dover Prosper” idea will work.

“Dover’s a great city, but we need to be a great city to do business in,” he said. “That’s what this will do. It’s going to bring us into the 21st century.”