A reorganization of the departments that oversee development in the Town of Oro Valley has begun.

The change would put under one umbrella department the three separate departments that previously managed commercial and residential development projects. The new department will be called Development and Infrastructure Services.

"It's a better way to provide service," said Suzanne Smith, who will head up the newly inaugurated department. Smith previously was the director of the building safety department.

The new department incorporates building safety, planning and zoning and public works. The final component includes engineering, development review and transit operations.

The rationale behind the changes, which the town has begun to implement since the fiscal 2010-'11 budget was approved in June, was to streamline a development review process that some people had deemed slow and cumbersome.

The ongoing changes are expected to reduce the time needed to shepherd projects through the town process.

Smith said some of the changes would allow for foundation-only permits, meaning a project could proceed at the foundation level while awaiting approval of other aspects of the plan.

Another change would permit town inspectors to approve alterations to plans while conducting field inspections, thereby speeding the process along. Such in-field approvals would only be permissible in cases that don't include significant structural building issues.

The reorganization also includes the creation of an ombudsman function that would provide a single point-person for customers to go through with questions or other issues about an ongoing project.

"Instead of seeing three different people at three different times, there's one person," Smith said.

A guiding principle is to make the town a more business-friendly environment in an effort to improve the town's reputation, Smith said.

The town modeled the changes on similar changes enacted five years ago in the City of Gilbert.

The changes are welcome news to one of the area's largest construction industry advocacy groups.

"I think that they have recognized that there have been some challenges in the development review process," said David Godlewski, spokesman for the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association.

Godlewski said the group welcomes the plans to consolidate and streamline the development process as "a step in the right direction."

The changes add to an already completed bevy of reforms the town has enacted over the past year that have trimmed months off the standard development timeframe. Other changes also have been proposed.

In addition, town officials are currently considering an overhaul of Oro Valley's sign code, something the business community has lobbied for since last summer.

The town has instituted some minor changes to sign regulations while the overall review is ongoing. Among those were allowing businesses greater freedom in the use of temporary signage.

"We have been encouraged by the process," Godlewski said.

In an effort to further streamline the town's development process, the town council plans to consider a proposal that would potentially eliminate the citizen-led Development Review Board.

Three reform possibilities were outlined, varying from limiting the board to reviews of architectural designs, to disbanding the body and putting its duties on town planning and zoning employees.

If the board were disbanded, under one option, town staff would make recommendations to the council for final approval.

Another option has town zoning employees taking over the entire development approval process, including development plans, preliminary plats, landscape plans, parking analysis, architecture, signage, grading exceptions, communications facilities and time extensions.

Elimination of the board would shorten the approval process by nearly three months, town officials have estimated.

The town plans to hold a series of forums in July and August to collect public input.

An underlying factor influencing the push toward consolidation has been the recent downturn in construction activities, which also have negatively impacted the amount of tax revenue coming into town coffers.

Smith said the departmental consolidations alone could net $1.4 million in savings.

Town departments that handle development-related issues also have seen a reduction in employee numbers.

"There has been a large reduction in personnel in our area," Smith said.

The three departments had a total of 99 employees in 2008, Smith said. For the current budget year, the new department would have about 72 full-time employees.

Smith added that the new Development and Infrastructure Services Department would be equipped in the future to handle an upswing in building activity.

"It's a community growing up," Smith said.

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