Illegal construction projects can gain approval without penalties

Homeowners and nonprofit agencies with unpermitted construction in unincorporated areas of Sonoma County have another six months to apply for permits without risk of penalties.

The Board of Supervisors last week extended a 6-month-old program that waives penalties for owners who report illegal construction and then get it approved through the county's planning process.

The program does not apply to commercial structures.

The extension gives property owners more time to come forward, go through inspections and get permits. About 14 projects are now under review and officials said they hope more people will come forward before the program's new sunset date, now in July.

"I think it's in everyone's interest that these projects get inspected and that they're ensured to be safe," said Pete Parkinson, head of the county's Permit and Resource Management Department.

Parkinson said his staff would be putting more effort into advertising the program among homeowners and small-scale builders, who have done much of the unpermitted construction.

Since the program's inception in August, the planning department has issued permits for 11 previously unpermitted projects. Many were small additions or improvements. County officials said the next batch could include larger remodels and outbuilding construction, which generally require more time to complete design paperwork.

Penalties waived over the past six months as part of the program amount to about $240,000. Officials said that was not lost revenue because the projects likely never would have been found had the owners not come forward.

The county has continued to collect fees on illegal construction discovered through complaints and investigations. The county typically receives about 1,000 tips on illegal construction annually.

Penalties collected on those projects generally amount to about $350,000 to $400,000 over a six-month period, said Ben Neuman, the county code enforcement division manager who oversees the penalty-relief program.

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