Opinion/Editorial (764 words)
25 for 25: NHDES Highlighting 25 Years of Environmental Protection
First of Twenty-five: Environmental Permitting –
Healthy Environment and a Strong Economy Go Hand-in-Hand
Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner
In recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, over the course of the year, I will highlight 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the first in the series, relates to DES’s permitting responsibilities.
If you were to apply to DES today for an environmental permit, it’s likely that it would be processed in a short period of time, and more quickly than if you applied for a comparable environmental permit from any of the other New England states. But it wasn’t always this way. Environmental permitting in New Hampshire was often disjointed, time consuming, and fraught with uncertainty for homeowners, business people and municipal officials because four separate state agencies were responsible for ensuring protection of our air, water, and for waste management. To complicate matters, those agencies didn’t always talk to each other! In response, twenty-five years ago, the legislature formed DES to create a centralized system to oversee environmental permitting, improve coordination across programs, ensure appropriate opportunity for public review and comment, and streamline processing while ensuring that our environment would be protected and restored as the state’s economy continues to grow.
Today, DES prides itself on the prompt and efficient processing of permit applications and acts on most basic permit applications within days or weeks, not the months or even years that some old-timers may recall. As a result, today in New Hampshire a strong economy and a healthy environment go hand-in-hand, and it’s widely recognized that the formation of DES has played a major role in promoting the state’s high quality of life.
Over the years, DES has worked to improve permitting information for all of our “customers,” by creating tools such as the 1988 Guidebook for Environmental Permits in New Hampshire, providing, for the first time, guidance to agency customers on all of DES’s various types of permits, licenses and approvals. The Permit Guide has evolved to its current online version, which describes in detail the 95 different types of authorizations currently administered by DES (www.des.nh.gov, look for Permits under Quick Links).
Another service provided by DES includes pre-application meetings to provide applicants early and direct access to agency staff, as well as to identify in one sitting all DES requirements for a project, activity or event. These meetings provide the applicant an active forum within which to discuss preferred methods of successfully preparing and submitting applications to DES, to obtain advice on how to avoid common pitfalls, and to provide follow-through to an ultimate decision.
DES is always in pursuit of new permitting innovations to improve customer service. For example, the Land Resources Management Program (LRMP) implemented the integrated “Application Receipt Center” (ARC) in 2010. This ARC, a year in the making, created a single, standardized process by which permit applications are received, entered into a tracking database, and forwarded to technical review for four programs: Wetlands; Shoreland; Alteration of Terrain; and Subsurface Systems (i.e., “septic systems”). The ARC brings together administrative staff from the four programs as a team, providing for better cross-program coordination and staff coverage. The result is NO delay in the initial processing of applications, improved standardization of these initial tasks, and greater automation of daily activities, such as check processing. In fact, the ARC conducts practically every administrative completeness review within one day of application receipt, which compares very favorably with similar processes in other states that take up to 30 days or more.
Future improvements at DES include online submission of application materials through e-permitting, streamlining the technical review processes, and integrated permitting within the land resource management programs. Our goal is to provide our customers with a streamlined, consistent state permitting process that includes improved coordination with other state and federal agencies, and, rather than separate permits for Wetlands, Shoreland, Alteration of Terrain and Subsurface Systems aspects of a project, an alternative permit option that would allow issuance of a single, integrated permit through a process that will provide enhanced upfront guidance and appropriate opportunities for public input, and will likely reduce final permit review and approval timeframes.
DES is also working closely with other agencies to provide a single online portal for accessing information on all of DES’s permitting processes through the New Hampshire Business One-Stop Program. By continuing to pursue these and other continuous improvement initiatives, DES remains committed to its mission of protecting human health and the environment while serving our customers effectively and efficiently.
New Hampshire continues to be cited as “the most livable state in the nation.” Part of this continuing honor is attributable to the thoughtful, open, coordinated permitting process provided by DES in collaboration with its many partners in both the public and private sectors. Together we can ensure that New Hampshire continues to be a state where a healthy environment and a robust economy go hand-in-hand.
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