The Construction Drawing (CD) Review and Site Plan Approval Process
To build a commercial real estate property or engage in most land development activities, you need various approvals before breaking ground. These approvals and permits are obtained during the pre-development phase of a project as part of the land entitlement process.
The real estate development process is mainly uniform across most markets, but the quirky yet significant nuances of each code are where projects can quickly derail. Depending on the municipality, the complexity of the project, and specific development regulations, those approvals can vary greatly.
As you're assembling your real estate development team, it's essential to have local project consultants and service providers helping you navigate the nuances of approvals and managing land entitlement risks.
But before diving into the specifics of the CD review and site plan approval process, I think it's important to understand what information is typically conveyed as part of each submittal package.
So, let’s start with a quick intro to site plans and engineering construction drawings.
What is a site plan?
A site plan is a graphic representation of all proposed improvements that will be made to a property as part of a land development project.
Site plans are the common operating roadmap between the project owner, civil engineer, architect, contractors, and governing agencies.
It’s also an important document in terms of project budgeting. One of the critical aspects of creating a real estate development budget is estimating the sitework and land development costs. Without a solid site planning document and, as we'll discuss, engineering construction drawings, it would be impossible for a site contractor to capture all the pertinent site costs accurately.
Typically, a site plan will include many of the following elements:
- The density and type of proposed development (commercial vs. residential vs. mixed-use)
- Any required setbacks, buffers, and streetscapes
- Any required open spaces and tree protection areas
- Amenity areas
- Space delineated for a stormwater control measure
- Required parking and driveways
- Any environmental considerations like streams and wetlands
- Fire and emergency access
- Off-site improvements
Civil engineers are generally responsible for taking the lead on drafting the minimum required site plan elements. So, as a project owner, you must offer design guidance based on your vision, anticipated financial returns, or operations business needs.
Remember that a site plan is the foundation for the rest of the development project. And minor site plan tweaks can correspond to tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars of cost savings. Project owners must be engaged in its creation and well-versed enough to spot-check the plan for efficiency.
Common engineering construction drawings included in a development site plan set
A site plan does nothing more than provide a general overview of a project. The engineering construction drawings are where the granular site details are captured and presented for the contractors to develop the property.
The construction documents needed for submittal will depend on the municipality's requirements and the project's specifics.
As with a site plan, your project civil engineer will typically lead CD production. However, they'll also need input from other consultants participating in the pre-development and real estate due diligence. Environmental engineers conducting stream & wetland delineations may need to be called in to determine how much of a site is developable. An engineer who's an expert in geotechnical investigations will need to assess the subsurface conditions of a property to determine what earthwork might be necessary.
These investigations and reports all feed into the construction drawings submitted to the reviewing agencies for approval. Standard engineering construction documents include:
- Existing conditions and demolition plan
- Utility plan highlighting the size and location of all utility improvements
- Grading and drainage plan outlining how stormwater is routed through the site
- Site lighting plan
- Erosion control plan to show how dirt/sediment are controlled throughout the site
- Landscape plan
- Architectural elevations
As engineering elements are further defined, additional information sheets typically show more granular site details like stormwater device specifics, retaining wall sections, and other critical site details.
The construction drawings review and site plan approval process
Before you can commence a land development, you need the required approvals and permits from any governing agencies to break ground.
This is the legal process known as land entitlement, and every municipality has its own review and approval process.
Some municipalities require plans to go through a technical review committee (TRC) approval process before plans can be refined further. Once plans receive TRC approval, they are ferried to higher approval authority levels for review. In these cases, the technical review committee usually only evaluates the site plan or preliminary subdivision plat for completion and suitability.
The engineering construction drawings review and site plan approval process commonly happen concurrently. In other situations, the site plan or preliminary subdivision plat is submitted and reviewed first; CDs may be submitted for review. The latter allows the submitting party to incorporate comments on the site plan into their drawings before moving forward with and codifying the granular details in the construction documents.
The actual review and approval process is typically straightforward. Once the site plan and CDs are submitted for review, approval authorities have time to analyze the plans, mark them up, and return them to the development team. The real estate developer then can incorporate any comments into their plans and resubmit them for subsequent review.
This process of resubmittal, municipal review, and plan refinement happens several times until the development team has met all the design criteria outlined by the approval agencies. It’s common, depending on the difficulty of the municipality and complexity of the development plans, for there to be 3 or 4 rounds of review before the developer receives complete CD and site plan approval.
Full site plan approval still doesn’t authorize a developer to hit the ground running with their project. Permissions like land disturbance, erosion control, and driveway permits need to be applied for and approved before achieving land entitlement.
Remember that any plan requests a developer makes that deviate from the municipality’s unified development ordinance (UDO) require a separate review and approval process. If your use or design isn't allowed "by right," a property rezoning or land use modification may be necessary. Some variance and modification requests can be handled at the staff level, while others go through quasi-judicial review proceedings before an appearance or adjustment board.
These requests happen at various stages of the construction drawing review and site plan approval process.
Any rezoning request typically happens before site plan submittal, but other variance and modification appeals commonly occur during the standard review process. If these reviews are run concurrently, the development team risks retroactively reworking their site plan and CDs, resulting in costly and time-intensive delays if a modification is denied.
Strategically sequencing these land entitlement tasks during pre-development is critical to managing costs and project risk.
The role of a real estate developer during the site plan approval process
There is no formal training pipeline to become a real estate developer. That means that developers come from various backgrounds – some were trained PEs or architects, while others may come from a background in construction or finance.
That's important because many real estate developers cannot formally analyze engineering construction drawings for accuracy and completion. However, there are several ways that a developer can positively influence the site plan approval process.
First, if you aren't prepared to offer constructive feedback on the site plan or CDs, it's essential to solicit the services of an "unbiased" third party to help. This could be a general contractor that can begin estimating construction costs and offer value engineering suggestions based on cost-saving measures. Or it could be an unrelated civil engineer who reviews the site plan package for accuracy and efficiency.
As a real estate developer, your chief role during pre-development is managing land entitlement risks – positioning yourself at process friction points to ensure project success. That could be liaising with key staff personnel or council members to advocate for your project. Or it could be hiring a land use attorney to manage those relationships for you. But it always requires you to have your thumb on the pulse as to what kinds of projects have been successful in the past, what the municipality's future vision for a property is, and how your site plan and construction drawings accommodate those ends.
The more experience a developer has, the better equipped they are to offer constructive feedback on the technical aspects of the engineering documents, but more importantly, the more likely they can positively influence the site plan approval process.
A real estate development consultant can help bridge the expertise and management gap between the project owner and engineering design consultants.
Some project owners elect to hire an owner’s representative to assist with development – brought on to advocate for the owner's interest throughout the project. While that is adequate for some projects, many owners' representatives lack the technical expertise to manage the pre-development and land entitlement processes effectively.
Delivering the right building in the right place at the right time lies at the intersection of tax implications, investment and business operations, legal structure considerations, business growth, and financial return parameters. Weighing these influences and delivering quality development is more than simply checking the site plan approval box.
At Marsh & Partners, we're developers by trade but consult with small businesses, real estate developers, investors, and landowners to help them achieve the optimal portfolio and real estate outcome.
Check out our real estate consulting services to learn more about how we might be able to help.