Lawmakers try to set deadline for state highway permit responses

February 18, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |
  • Former Hoffman Used Cars lot at Edgewood Drive and U.S. 40 is scheduled for development. State Highway Administration delays have set the project back.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Two state lawmakers have crafted a bill aimed at the Maryland State Highway Administration, alleging that the agency’s bureaucracy has held up some local development projects.

The bill would force SHA to act within 90 days after getting a request for a permit to access a state road. Otherwise, the permit would have to be granted.

The agency can request, in writing, a 60-day extension to make a decision.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank and Del. Andrew A. Serafini, who cross-filed bills in the Senate and House, said they heard stories about unreasonable delays to projects in Washington County.

However, Shank said Thursday that he’s withdrawing his bill after hearing from Steven D. Foster, chief of SHA’s Access Management Division, that the agency has improved recently.

In a letter to Shank, Foster promised “to become personally involved in (complex) cases or on any issues brought to my attention.”

“I interpret his commitment to be sincere,” Shank said, explaining why he’ll pull his bill back for now.

Serafini wasn’t sure on Friday if he’ll pursue his bill or withdraw it.

He said he wants to make sure SHA, as an agency, is responsive, regardless of the individual employees.

“Good departments come and go,” he said. “I want a situation with accountability because time is business to the business community.”

Foster wasn’t available Friday afternoon for an interview, but sent a statement through SHA spokesman David Buck that said the agency has worked to improve what can be a complicated review process and hopes to do even better.

According to a Department of Legislative Services analysis of the bill, SHA decides whether to allow access from a commercial or industrial property to a state highway carrying an average of more than 2,000 vehicles a day.

A multistep process includes traffic impact studies and detailed engineering plans, the analysis says. The agency reported that it sometimes takes applicants “a year or longer” to address SHA’s comments.

The average time for pre-permit review of a traffic impact study is 27 days, the analysis says. Pre-permit engineering reviews take an average of 22.9 days.

Ninety-eight percent of the permits were issued within 45 days in 2011.

“SHA advises that the time required to complete permit application review depends on the quality, accuracy, and completeness of the application,” the analysis says.

Local projects delayed

Jason Divelbiss — a Hagerstown attorney who attended a Feb. 8 meeting with Shank, Foster and others — gave two examples of SHA problems he experienced.

Both involved lots where Walgreens drug store branches are proposed. Divelbiss represents the developers.

At Virginia Avenue and Halfway Boulevard, the developer first tried for a permit in January 2011 and received it in December 2011.

In between, Divelbiss said, SHA gave one set of comments in July, a new set in September and a third set in November. It wasn’t clear if the later concerns were new, he said, but the list had gotten much longer.

Divelbiss noted that the developer’s plan was to eliminate two existing access points on Virginia Avenue in favor of a right-turn-only from Halfway Boulevard and an exit onto Glenside Avenue.

At the other site, Dual Highway and Edgewood Drive, SHA wanted to eliminate access from Dual Highway, which would have killed the project, Divelbiss said.

“It came somewhat out of left field,” he said, noting that SHA previously allowed two Dual Highway access points to remain when the road was improved.

For both projects, the issues have been resolved and work is expected to start this summer, Divelbiss said.

Taylor Oliver said his company, John R. Oliver Co. Inc., had a frustrating delay while planning to build 34 storage units off Md. 60.

A few years ago, he said, the company invited someone from SHA to the property to decide where an entrance should go. Based on that input, the company spent more than $20,000 on design work and other costs.

A few months later, the company heard from a Harrisburg, Pa., engineer, working for SHA, calling for the entrance and a stormwater pond to be relocated, Oliver said.

His company appealed and contacted an SHA supervisor, who came to the site and concurred that the original entrance spot was correct.

Oliver said the confusion created a delay of about four to six months.

Serafini said a proposed High’s Dairy Store along Md. 64 near Smithsburg also has run into delays related to road-access approval.

A company official could not be reached for comment on Friday.

The Herald-Mail reported in September 2010 that a building permit was issued the previous month. The store has not been built.

Streamlining the process

Buck, the SHA spokesman, wrote in an email that in April 2010, “a Highway Access Permit Stakeholder Review Group convened to streamline the process for granting access permits that connect new developments to Maryland’s highways.”

Foster, in his statement, wrote: “The Maryland State Highway Administration’s Access Management has made great strides in the past year as a result of several new processes formed as part of the Access Management Stakeholder Review Task Force. SHA’s number one goal when reviewing, coordinating and ultimately approving an access permit is to ensure traffic is properly mitigated as a result of any development that impacts a State road.

“Frequently, the traffic impact study and pre-permit engineering processes which lead up to a completed set of plans from a developer, can take months. During the pre-permit engineering phase, SHA works to oversee the developer and their consultants to make sure roadway impacts directly associated with the development are properly mitigated to ensure the safety and integrity of the roadway.

“Once SHA has a final set of plans, we are committed to a review process that is timely and one that works closely with a developer and their consultants. The engineering reviews and permitting process can be complicated and SHA admits we need to work to improve the timeliness of the entire process. We have measures in place as a result of the task force that already are showing steady progress.”

One improvement, the DLS analysis says, is “a database to track project reviews and provide web-based reporting so customers can track project submissions.”

Divelbiss said he was encouraged by Foster’s comments.

Divelbiss also said it’s not clear how the bill, if it passes, would help. The bill requires an SHA decision within 90 days of a permit application, but by the time an application is submitted, all of the concerns usually have been addressed, he said.

It’s actually the pre-permitting process that can get bogged down, he said.

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