Sonoma County's Planning Department — a government division often under fire from landowners and builders — is set to hold a public open house next Friday to "demystify" the permit process.

Planning officials have been working over the past two years to improve customer service at the Permit and Resource Management Department, which oversees building and development projects in the unincorporated area.

Critics say it is often the source of excessive and costly regulation that can delay projects.

County officials have responded by trying to streamline some regulations. Last year, supervisors also authorized spending $188,000 a year in pay and benefits for a customer service ombudsman at the department to help guide applicants through the permit process.

On Jan. 18, from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m., planning officials are hosting an open house to introduce the ombudsman, explain county permits to first time applicants and unveil new services for regular customers.

The Permit and Resource Management Department is at 2550 Ventura Ave., Santa Rosa. For more information, call 565-1900.

--Brett Wilkison