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Maryland to unveil streamlined approval process

Maryland will unveil a streamlined approval process for developers and businesses pursuing large, job-creating projects on Thursday.

Gov. Martin O’Malley is scheduled to sign an executive order in Halethorpe to create “Fast Track,” building on steps his administration has taken since the 2010 election to address the state’s oft-criticized regulatory regime.

“When we have big economic projects that are pending that will create jobs and bring investments, we have to be strategic and accelerate these projects, and say it’s not the state government that is preventing these projects from moving forward,” said Christian Johansson, secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development.

“Some of these permitting processes have become more unwieldy than anyone would like them to become,” he added.

Fast Track will allow developers to apply for the expedited review process online. Representatives of the different state regulatory agencies, from the State Highway Administration to the Maryland Department of the Environment, will match the project’s specifications against a standard rubric to determine if it qualifies.

If approved, the project would be vetted concurrently by different state agencies rather than one at a time. DBED and StateStat, the data-driven arm of O’Malley’s staff that measures government performance, will monitor the progress of permit reviews.

“This is a way for someone to use DBED to make sure we’re sending messages at the right levels, to the right agencies to get a response,” Johansson said.

The secretary declined to discuss the specific requirements to qualify for Fast Track, but used Westport as an example of the type of development DBED would target for the program.

Developer Pat Turner’s $1.2 billion waterfront project sits on 50 acres overlooking the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, and plans include office space, stores, restaurants, residential units, hotel rooms and even, perhaps, a soccer stadium. It sits in zones identified by the city and state as priority areas for development.

“We view it as an essential future development of Baltimore City,” Johansson said.

Business regulation didn’t exactly make headlines during last year’s gubernatorial campaign, but O’Malley, a Democrat, and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, sparred over the state’s role in policing and promoting the private sector.

Ehrlich said he would take a “power hose” to regulatory agencies. And economists and conservative lawmakers lament the perception that Maryland is unwelcoming to business. And on Tuesday, CNBC ranked Maryland No. 29 in its list of the best states for business in 2011. Virginia ranked No. 1.

“It’s the reality of the business climate and also the perception of the business climate that is reducing investment in the state as well as job creation,” Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group Inc., said this month when asked to explain the state’s job losses. “It’s too easy for businesspeople to avoid Maryland and search for a more favorable business environment.”

Fast Track is part of O’Malley’s Maryland Made Easy campaign launched in January. The campaign includes reviews and updates of the most problematic permits — a group led by Johansson started with highway access permits last year — and an effort to bring more of the processes online.

Johansson said Thursday’s announcement would include the launch of easy.maryland.gov, where DBED plans to build a portal where businesses will be able to apply for permits and track reviews of their applications.

“It’s very much a first step,” he said.