IN 11 YEARS, MARICE WHITE, the vice president of Government Solutions in Newport Beach, Calif., has never seen an easy permit approval process. “We don't see the easy ones,” she says. “We're usually brought in when they've hit a snag. We get all the difficult projects.”

There is no shortage of those. As the municipal approval process comes to resemble a daunting obstacle course and community activists of all stripes play unpredictable roles in the life of a building project, builders are increasingly turning to specialized companies, such as Government Solutions, to assist in navigating the system. Obtaining entitlements, approvals, and permits may now involve wooing multiple parties from government officials to community newspapers to neighboring homeowners to environmental, traffic, and noise control associations. Builders can try to do this on their own in the numerous areas where they build or they can tap local experts who know the many different players and are familiar with the changing rules of the game.

Ken Nishikawa, vice president of planning and development at John Laing Homes' South Coast division in Irvine, estimates that the builder taps an outside agency such as Government Solutions to assist with the approval process in about one-fourth of the Newport Beach-based builder's projects, particularly in large-scale projects, measured either by project size or investment. “Council members or commissioners change, and we want to let them know who we are and what our track record is,” he explains. “We appreciate an introduction by someone who is known to them, rather than making a cold call. There are so many cities here in Orange County that we haven't worked in before, or it has been a while, so we look for people who have a good track record in a specific area.”

WEST COAST TEAM: Government Solutions' principals Coralee Newman (left), Marice White (right), and Carol M. Hoffman (seated). In addition to the ordinary concerns that builders encounter—from traffic to noise to density issues—communities are becoming more diverse: a Spanish language or Thai or Vietnamese cultural expert might be needed in a particular locale. And, especially in California, there are always environmental groups ready to pounce. “Basically, you want a variety of viewpoints,” says John Laing's Nishikawa. “You can't have five old guys like me with engineering degrees trying to figure out how to do this.”

The Personal Touch “Entitlement firms,” or “community service management companies,” can work for developers, builders, and land owners. Many full-service firms such as Government Solutions, which charges from $100 to $250 an hour, say they integrate government relations, media relations, and community issues management to offer assistance at every stage of a project. Explains vice president White: “Often times our clients don't have an entitlement, and they need it, or they have entitlements and they need to understand how to move forward—how to translate the entitlement into an actual project. Or they need a change or shift in current entitlements, zoning, or use changes to achieve their goals.”

An urban infill John Laing project called Sailhouse in Corona del Mar, Calif., was particularly challenging, recalls White. The builder wanted to replace old apartments with attached bungalows and detached cottages nestled directly against an ocean bluff where existing residents atop the hillside enjoyed spectacular views of the sea. Government Solutions and John Laing worked on the project for two years, recalls White. They had to balance the city's objective of more affordable homes with residents' concerns about their sea views, and engineer issues about the hillside coming down and crashing into the sea.

A retaining wall was added to bolster the hillside, said White. Then Government Solutions entered every home to photograph the residents' views, and superimposed pictures of the proposed roofs of the new communities to assure them that existing residents would not lose an inch of their ocean views. Residents of existing apartments, which were scheduled to be torn down and replaced, had to be relocated and given a relocation stipend. “It was a long process,” says White. “There were a lot of things to keep track of.”

The builder agreed to delay the schedule to allow the families with children to stay in their homes until the end of the school year. Sailhouse was completed in 2002, has garnered numerous awards, was profiled in a Sunday New York Times feature article, and has been the subject of studies by the Urban Land Institute, the Washington, D.C.-based organization devoted to progressive land-use policies. The community is sold out.

Don'T Fight City Hall While many builders are increasingly media savvy and are starting to incorporate green-building techniques to win over environmental groups, dealing with city hall is everyone's nemesis, says White. “Some cities have staff members that are very, very difficult,” she acknowledges. These staffers might be on the defensive from the outset, says White, in effect saying, “You want to build 1,000 homes? Think of the more crowded schools, crowded streets, patrolled by fewer police, fewer firefighters per home. How will you provide for that?”

Actually, White says she believes “the city where you hear the staff is very difficult is where the city is well planned and well run. You look at some of these cities and they have so many restrictions that they've hurt themselves,” she says. “But in the scheme of things, if they make you run the gauntlet, you end up with an outstanding project.”

Thus, says White, where third-party experts offer value is their established, ongoing relationships with city staff. The goal is a positive staff recommendation, she says, and that depends generally on only five to eight people in every city.

“It's our job to make sure staff is informed,” White explains. “We take the time to really understand the staffs' positions. We don't go to meetings under the assumption that they have all the information. We brief them with massive background materials. We can help the staff do a better job and achieve our clients' goals.”

Words To The Wise Government Solutions' vice president, Marice White, offers a few guiding principles to builders facing a difficult encounter with government officials:

  • The little things matter. “Don't lose sight of the importance of all the smaller steps in the process by just focusing on a win at the end of the day,” says White. Every step and every person a builder talks to is just as important as the official who wields the gavel the night a project is approved or not.
  • Know the land. Sometimes, says White, builders haven't fully researched issues that might impact the property they just purchased, or adjacent property, even though they they've already closed escrow. There might be an easement from an oil company across the property barring any construction on much of the land without the oil company's permission, for example. Vacant land that is ready to be built on is so scarce that “there's a feeding frenzy for anything. People just don't care” what easements or restrictions might be on the land, she sighs.
  • Use the environment. Environmental issues loom large now in many localities and can spring up at every stage of construction. White recommends addressing green issues early on—boxing and replanting any trees that must be moved, for example.
  • Go the extra mile. Once an environmental quality statement comes out, says White, that's when the builder can go above and beyond the minimum that's required. “Oftentimes the goodwill you invest with ‘extras' makes it easier for elected officials” to support the construction, she notes. Mitigate traffic concerns beyond what they're required to be by, say, adding an extra turn lane. Go above and beyond park requirements when it comes to open space and incorporate street trees and landscaped medians, she advises. Where a builder is looking for development rights over a three- or five-year period, added contributions and scholarships toward local schools speak volumes about the commitment that builders have to that community.
  • Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.