Digitized Environmental Permitting in Virginia, with Mike Roldband of Virginia Department of Environmental Quality

Mike Rolband’s environmental career has spanned more than 40 years. What started as a path in construction and real estate development eventually led to his development of one of the first mitigation banks in the country. Now, Rolband serves as Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Director of the Department of Environmental Quality.

Mike Rolband, now Director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) started his career in the construction and real estate development industry, where his niche focus on small sites with environmental problems led him to become a full-time consultant. By 1991, his company had evolved into a consulting firm for natural-cultural resource issues. At the same time, Rolband began developing his first wetland mitigation bank in Northern Virginia—one of the first in the country.

Rolband stayed the course for 30 years, eventually selling his consultancy to a large firm. He continued working at the firm full-time, then part-time, until he turned to teaching as a professor of practice for 3 years at Cornell University. Then, after a brief period of retirement—not his first, and not his last—Rolband saw an interview with newly-elected Virginia Governor Youngkin, who expressed interest in boosting the economy and the environment by encouraging economic development, thereby increasing jobs. To do this, Youngkin needed to streamline environmental permitting and ensure compliance with regulations at the same time. 

“If you notice, around the world and in the U.S., areas that don’t have strong economies can’t afford to protect the environment,” said Rolband. “In Virginia, we have a notable law called the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. In the preamble, Delegate Tayloe Murphy described the interconnection between a strong and healthy economy and a strong and healthy environment.” Rolband wrote Youngkin a letter in response to the interview, and was later appointed as director of the DEQ.

At DEQ, Rolband’s priority is boosting the efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency of the environmental permitting process with PEEP: the Permit Enhancement and Evaluation Program.

Rolband’s priority at DEQ is boosting the efficiency and effectiveness of the environmental permitting process. Earlier this year, DEQ launched PEEP, the Permit Enhancement and Evaluation Program. In addition to streamlining the process, Rolband wants to boost transparency, so stakeholders ranging from the permittee, the agent, the applicants, and even the local public can understand and see where a permit is in the process. 

The PEEP platform provides a Gantt chart showing all of the major activities or actions that DEQ or related federal or state agencies must undertake to come to a permit decision. “That’s the key that everyone always wants to know: When can we expect a decision?” Rolband says. “In my career, going back more than 40 years now since grad school, [permitting is] a black box: you submit an application, and unless you know the right people to call, it’s very difficult to ever find out where you stand in the process. It’s a very unclear and opaque process, in Virginia and every state I’ve ever worked in at the federal level as well.”

To address this, DEQ has begun establishing two key things for each permit:

    1. A checklist showing what’s required for a complete application
    1. A schedule showing every task and every different agency a permit goes through to reach a final decision

Two programs are now live on PEEP: The wetland permitting program, and the mitigation banking program. “I picked [wetlands permitting] because it’s the most complicated, in terms of having the most state and federal agencies involved in the process,” said Rolband. “We figured if we can make it work for that, we can make it work for simple ones.

“The second one, we picked because it’s a joint program with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). So the first step was establishing a schedule and aligning who is the lead—DEQ or the Corps.” Rolband says DEQ and USACE recently signed a Memorandum of Agreement that describes the mitigation process, describing each step, outlining who is responsible, which agency is the lead, and what are the associated timelines.They’ve also included timeframes for the applicant to respond to the questions different agencies may have. Any new permits within these programs that were submitted on or later than March 1, 2023 can now be tracked using PEEP.

PEEP pushes out automated notifications, including an alert a week ahead of the due date to the permit-writer. Each week, the alert goes to a higher level so that management can become involved and determine if there’s an issue that someone can jump in and solve. This avoids delays and oversights, and helps direct resources where they’re needed.

Internally, the DEQ uses the “My Permit” page to track and manage permitting workloads and evaluate the performance of each permit application.

“My Permit” enables permit writers to see the workload that’s been assigned to them, the different tasks they’ve been assigned under each permit, and when each task is due. My Permit provides an overall director summary, where Rolband and other managers can track the project and see statistically, either with averages or with a statistical analysis package, the breakdown of every permit issued by office, by agency, or aggregate, along with a view of all the different elements: Is it the applicant holding it up? Is a particular agency slowing or speeding the process? Rolband’s goal is to evaluate the performance.

DEQ has another program, 1DEQ, which supports workload sharing. The six regions and a central office now for the first time share a dashboard that shows workload by person and by office overall. A workload can be moved around within the system to boost efficiency. 

Rolband says DEQ has already seen “an amazing improvement” in the process in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.

Rolband credits staff with contributing ideas and further refining the process to boost efficiency. These platforms have also given the public a window to see where they stand in the permitting process, and be held accountable as well.

“One thing we’ve found is that there’s a fair number of people–typically consulting firms–who submit incomplete applications,” Rolband said. PEEP tracks the process and shows when an application goes back to the consulting firm, and how long it stays with them before a response is made. Internally, DEQ is allotted 15 days to respond to an application if it’s complete in every program. They are also assigning 15 days to the agents to respond to their completeness review.

PEEP represents the permitting timeline using a vertical bar with the original target date. If the schedule changes due to delays, the projected target date moves out as well, and the vertical bar grows. “It’s been very effective and motivating for everyone involved in the process,” said Rolband.

Rolband has long suspected that the most common delay a permit faces is incomplete information, and the data they’ve collected so far proves that. “A lot of people have this idea they just need to submit quickly, and get something in the door, and then certain people will just wait a month or two and submit another application. But that wastes regulators’ time,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is get everyone upfront to know what’s required, and then we can do an effective and complete review in a more efficient manner than start-and-stop.”

DEQ hopes to have all 12 programs and 60+ permits online by the end of 2023.

Looking ahead, Rolband hopes to see agencies continue to digitize.   The end of 2023 will mark Rolband’s second full year in office. By that time, he hopes to see every permit program at DEQ—land, water, and air, all—hosted within the PEEP program.

He’d also like to at least begin the process of developing a full electronic permitting system. “What people think is electronic permitting is really a fancy way of distributing PDFs,” he said. As early as 2005, Rolband served as a beta-tester for the Corps to develop a true e-permitting system, where applications would be hosted online, and the data in the application would feed into a database, along with all reviews and comments from agencies—an initiative that has still yet to come to fruition. 

A fully digitized system of that sort would boost transparency and eliminate back and forth, Rolband said, and it would feed right into a PEEP-like tracking system. “Right now, we’re taking an existing database that DEQ runs on the ORACLE platform, and adding a visualization system, using Tableau, to visualize the data going into this database. Obviously we’ve added a lot more key stops or metrics within that database to track, so we can really see the process, but if we could link that to full electronic permitting, the efficiencies would be phenomenal. Then, tie that eventually into a compliance electronic inspection system to see the future of compliance.”

DEQ has roughly 25,000 outstanding permits at any given time, sometimes a little more, says Rolband, issuing between 3,500-4000 permits per year of different kinds. 

“The more efficiencies we could make, we could have less staff time spent on paperwork, and more time spent getting a good environmental outcome,” he said.  

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