Wicked Local – Report: Saugus lagging in permit process, traffic – 3/28/14

By Martha Shanahan | mshanahan@wickedlocal.com

A slow, unwieldy permitting process, congested traffic and an unattractive business environment are all holding Saugus back from growth, according to a Northeastern University study comparing Saugus to other towns.

A professor at the university’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, Barry Bluestone, compiled data on Saugus’ infrastructure, public services and business environment. He found that despite Saugus’ better-than-average crime rate, house ownership, schools and proximity to public transit and the airport, a number of weaknesses “pose a challenge to successful development.”

The town’s procedure for processing site plan reviews and zoning variances takes an average of four weeks longer than other, comparable municipalities, the report found. Reviewing appeals takes on average eight weeks longer.

Bluestone presented his findings at a public meeting last week, telling town officials and residents that Saugus should streamline its permitting process and make it easier for businesses.

“Your jurisdiction may want to strongly consider reducing review durations by searching for and resolving permitting process congestion and bottlenecks,” the report said.

Bluestone’s report also recommended that the town create a “comprehensive economic development strategy” with a particular focus on attracting commercial and industrial business to the town.

It listed the permitting process and traffic concerns as major “deal-breakers” the town could solve through updated policies and projects.

The report also cited high rents as a roadblock to economic development but acknowledged that rents can rarely be affected by a change in town policy.

Town Manager Scott Crabtree said the town would take the report’s suggestions into consideration as he works with town officials to develop a previously nonexistent economic development plan.

“We need to have that conversation about our plan for healthy economic development that really hasn’t existed in Saugus,” Crabtree said. “The more you have the conversation, the more people begin to understand what it is and what it means.”

Crabtree said he agreed the town could make internal reforms to smooth out the permitting and zoning process, and that he will consider commissioning a comprehensive economic analysis as the report suggested.

“I think he’s identified some things that we can improve on,” Crabtree said. “We now need to set up a plan to implement these things. We’re going to look at everything he suggested and see if there’s a way forward.”

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