Sonoma County OK's $23M for postfire rebuilders to save big on permits

From action taken Monday, overall fee cuts are projected to be in the 80 percent range for Sonoma County permits to rebuild thousands of homes burned in the October wildfires. A permit-streamlining center is set to open in mid-February.|

SANTA ROSA — Starting Tuesday, it is supposed to get considerably easier and less expensive to get permits to rebuild the thousands of homes and other structures destroyed in the October wildfires in unincorporated areas of Sonoma County.

That's when county of Sonoma's multipronged Resiliency Permit Center plan goes into full motion. By bringing in an outside firm to help handle permits and inspections and by bolstering county staff, the Permit & Resource Management Department is expecting to reduce building fees by 35 percent to 40 percent, according to Tennis Wick, director of the department, also called Permit Sonoma. With the elimination of impact fees, overall fee cuts are projected to be in the 80 percent range.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Monday voted 5-0 for a five-part plan that's the backbone for the center. A big part is allocating up to $20 million over three years to hire East Bay-based West Coast Code Consultants, Inc., to help handle postfire permit processing and inspection. Other elements are spending $3 million more for county planning and building department staff, reducing permit-related fees, refunding existing permit-application fees for fire-recovery permit applications submitted after Oct. 9, and converting three limited-term Permit Sonoma positions to permanent status.

The Resiliency Permit Center is scheduled to open on Feb. 13 in modular offices at 455 Fiscal Drive in the county administration complex in Santa Rosa. The city of Santa Rosa opened a similar fire-related permit-streamlining center in late November.

Wick said goals associated with bringing in an outside contractor include a reduction in fees, shorter plan review times, instituting incentives linked to short turnaround times and increased accountability.

With expanded operations and capacity, plan review checks should take three days, if conducted at the new permit center and up to five days if West Coast Code Consultants have to refer applications to offices in Sacramento and elsewhere, according to Wick. He also said resubmitted applications should take only three days to review. Inspections should also take three to five days, based on the volume of buildings awaiting onsite reviews. If these turnaround times are not met, 10 percent of permit fees will be refunded to clients as an incentive.

As of Monday, 740 fire-related permit applications have been processed, Wick said. Plans have been checked for eight single-family homes, along with 18 remodeling applications.

The ability to provide fast turnaround involves the use of electronic plan reviews, having complete plan submittals, prescreening applications and scheduling appointments ahead of time, Wick said.

Greater accountability involves having Permit Sonoma liaison, Accela tracking (with plan review milestones and inspection response), access to contractor portals (with plan-review comments), and with accountants tracking payments.

Accela is a software system that streamlines land, permitting, asset, licensing, right-of-way, legislative management, and resource and recreation management processes.

Monday's special board session also included an update on county recovery activities on 3,953 approved parcels, presented by County Administrator Sheryl Bratton. As of Jan. 26, about 2,160 properties have been cleared — 55 percent of the total. That includes 846,425 tons of debris removed, equivalent to 35 Statues of Liberty, according to her report. Debris removal has involved 120 teams, with no reported backups at landfills, she said.

March 31 is the target date for finishing all debris removal activities in Sonoma County, Bratton said. Debris at Coffey Park inside Santa Rosa city limits has been completed, and only 15 vehicles have yet to be removed. Of 124 issues tracked related to debris removal, based on calls from property owners, 77 cases are still considered to be open.

U.S. Small Business Administration has received 2,800 fire-related applications to date, including 2,347 for homes and 453 for businesses, Bratton said. Of these, 915 have been approved so far — 808 for homes and 107 for businesses. Approved SBA loans total $119.56 million.

Temporary housing space for travel trailers at Sonoma County fairgrounds includes 120 pads with 85 applicants already housed. Thirty-four more travel trailers are now ready for occupancy. On a direct lease basis, 61 applicants are 'leased-in' with 11 pending solutions. Six more applicants will be in units by the end of January.

County supervisors voiced several concerns about the recovery process.

Shirlee Zane, representing the Third District, asked if there is sufficient housing space for construction workers, saying that one contractor initially set to help rebuild Coffey Park pulled out over fears related to a lack of supplies and workers to do the job. DeNova Homes of Concord earlier this month sent letters to property owners that it was dropping plans for rebuilds.

'We need hotels for tourists which will create conflict when it comes to finding accommodations for those coming here to rebuild,' Zane said.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, First District, said Sonoma County is on its own when it comes to providing temporary housing for construction workers and finding ways to pay for it. A special supervisors meeting is set for Feb. 5 to discuss ways to house the workforce.

Several options were presented as ways to alert and warn county residents about a pending emergency. Registering more people in the Sonoma County alert system was suggested, along with a new integrated Public Alert Warning System (PAWS) module in Code Red. A 90-character limit wireless emergency alert (WEA) message template was also recommended for red-flag warnings, flash floods, tsunami events and earthquakes.

Meanwhile, California Senate Bill 833, introduced Jan. 4, proposes new California Office of Emergency Services responsibilities related to county WEA systems, along with a California Emergency Services Act 'Red Alert' framework. This proposed bill is scheduled for a hearing in the California Assembly in April.

Another measure, Assembly Bill 1877 introduced Jan. 17, requires a translation of emergency communications into Spanish and English.

Supervisor and board Chairman James Gore, Fourth District, reacted to the emphasis by fire and emergency services personnel on wireless technology to carry emergency service messages in lieu of other options. He noted that 70 cell towers were destroyed in the October wildfires.

'The task is how to embrace the new normal and how best to get and be prepared for natural disasters, including possible events on the Roger's Creek fault,' Gore said. 'This subject, along with rebuilding and other related issues, will occupy our time and thinking throughout the year ahead and beyond.'

Zane pointed out that Graton has a siren warning system that works for its community. Sirens are seen by some in local government circles as too expensive to maintain, at about $2,000 a year, and less effective in winds faster than 30 mph. She requested that the board revisit the possibility of using sirens as a backup system.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, Second District, said $2,000 for sirens is a moot point. And while the Nixle text system has value, it also transmits promotional messages that many people don't need. He suggested finding ways to break down Emergency Operation Center and Office of Emergency Services barriers through a third-party review process to ensure an integrated and standardized alert system.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, Fifth District, said there are dead spots and less coverage for cell service in west county, and not everyone has a wireless phone or can receive such warnings. She said while some people get emergency messages, others don't. Radio broadcast information should have a place in alert plans.

Supervisors Hopkins and Gorin said 'boots on the ground' are a fail-safe system that should be promoted as another form of redundancy in the emergency-notification programs. They pointed to door-to-door efforts by Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE) neighborhood groups in each area.

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