Chesterfield was already well under way on a multiyear project to modernize the way its Community Development departments process private-sector construction applications when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and prompted the sudden closure of county buildings to the public.
Designated by the governor as an essential industry, one that accounts for approximately $750 million annually in Chesterfield and employs thousands of county residents, shutting down residential and commercial construction activity indefinitely was not an option.
Facing an urgent need for electronic document intake and plan review processes to keep projects moving, county staff performed a “light” rollout of the new Enterprise Land Management (ELM) system to maintain the flow of administrative work even with most employees working remotely.
“I personally think it’s one of the quiet success stories that came out of the pandemic,” said Andrew Gillies, director of Chesterfield Planning, in a Dec. 14 presentation to the Board of Supervisors. “It’s really been a good experience for us.”
Launched fully in February 2021, ELM is a customized, comprehensive software system for completing administrative functions in planning, zoning and development, permitting and inspections, utility connections and code enforcement. It replaces eight different programs that were used previously by departments in the Community Development division: Planning, Building Inspection, Utilities, Transportation, Community Enhancement and Environmental Engineering.
“Over the years, almost every county department involved in the review process [for land development projects] had their own software package. That meant all of us had to toggle back and forth between different programs to review an application, so it was a very cumbersome process,” Gillies explained. “The idea of ELM was to consolidate all of those into one system and be able to review everything through just one source of data.
“If you think about how county government can get entrenched in the way we do things, the elimination of eight different software packages was a monumental step forward and really brought us into this century for plans review,” he added.
ELM has increased the speed and efficiency by which Chesterfield’s customers in the construction industry – developers, builders, contractors and subcontractors – can navigate the administrative review pipeline.
Since the system went live less than a year ago, county employees have processed 65,875 building permits, 2,717 zoning applications and development plans (site plans, subdivision plats, etc.), 8,959 water and sewer applications and 144 land disturbance permits.
“Having an online system for submittals has definitely streamlined the process,” said Elizabeth Greenfield, vice president of government affairs for the Home Building Association of Richmond (HBAR). “County staff have been responsive to the industry and diligent in addressing system issues as they arise.”
ELM allows customers to handle everything online and at a time that fits their schedule – from submitting an application to paying fees and providing additional documents requested by staff as a project moves forward.
That saves time by freeing up the customer from having to travel to the county complex, wait in line and talk to an employee in person. According to Gillies, foot traffic in the Community Development building is down significantly because about 85% of applications are now being submitted electronically.
Likewise, it saves paper by storing documents online and minimizing the number of hard copies that must be submitted throughout the review process.
“All of this is leaner and greener,” said Bermuda District Supervisor Jim Ingle.
ELM also makes it easier for citizens to access information about zoning cases and development plans as they come forward.
If you go to chesterfield.gov and type ELM into the search bar, it will direct you to the ELM online portal. Then go to the login page – if you know the record number of a particular case that you’re interested in, you simply type that in. You don’t need a username or password to use the system.
If you don’t have the case number, you can go to the Planning webpage and click on “Maps and Reports” and go to “Pending Planning Cases Map.” That will take you to a GIS map of the county where you can find the information to then go back and plug into ELM.
Once you type in the case number and the page pops up, you can retrieve general information about the case. Then there’s a pull-down menu that contains all documentation related to the case: the application, Technical Review Committee comments and staff reports prepared for presentation to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.
“It’s a huge change from the way we used to do business,” Gillies said.
The ELM homepage on chesterfield.gov already includes a "Frequently Asked Questions" section and several "how-to" videos with helpful information about navigating the system.
One of the enhancements Chesterfield will pursue next year is merging information from pre-2021 zoning cases into ELM so citizens can access it through the online portal. Staff also is planning an outreach campaign to increase public awareness about ELM and improve the citizen experience while using the system.
Board of Supervisors Chair Chris Winslow noted that one of the issues regularly cited by constituents is the need for greater transparency from the county on pending zoning cases.
“I think we need to tell people about [ELM] so they know they can access any of these cases online,” Winslow said. “If we communicate all the work people are doing on zoning cases, that helps us have better conversations and dialogue in our community. I think this is a tool that will help us get to that next level.”