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Sonoma County supervisors considering temporary housing on farmland due to wildfires

In Coffey Park, Traci Lattie and her partner Wayne Hovey intend to rebuild, and are letting everyone know, Monday Oct. 23, 2017. On Monday they met with their insurance agent. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

J.D. MORRIS,

Sonoma County supervisors are set today to continue their efforts to speed up the region’s recovery from the devastating wildfires, considering plans to provide more emergency housing options, regulate cleanup and create a new fund to pay for some of the disaster response.

One major proposal would allow landowners to temporarily rent out structures on agricultural properties, including those covered by a 1965 state law restricting certain farmlands from development. The goal is to provide another quick boost to one of the most immediate consequences of the historic firestorm: the displacement of scores of local residents after flames destroyed nearly 7,000 structures, most of them homes, in the area.

Another key proposal would put standards in place for homeowners who opt out of the government’s free debris removal program, requiring private contractors to meet the same standards as their public counterparts for removing, transporting and ultimately disposing of hazardous waste.

The Board of Supervisors has previously taken several steps to address the wildfires’ impact on the county’s housing stock, which was already in short supply even before the most destructive fire in recorded California history wiped out an estimated 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s homes alone.

Most significantly, supervisors unanimously agreed last week to place a moratorium on new vacation rental permits and allow housing in temporary locations such as RVs, pool houses and sanctioned overnight parking spots.

They also encouraged landowners to build more granny units for rent by waiving or reducing various permit fees.

The housing plan under consideration today would extend the list of temporary options to include properties covered by the California Land Conservation Act, known more commonly as the Williamson Act. The law allows farmers to save money on their property taxes if they agree to keep their land used for agriculture and open space.

Supervisors will consider allowing existing dwellings on Williamson Act properties to be used as temporary housing for fire victims, as long as doing so doesn’t displace farmworkers, undermine “current or foreseeable future agricultural operations” or necessitate the “extension of urban services or infrastructure,” according to a county staff report.

The board will also consider an ordinance allowing landowners of agricultural properties to rent out their existing dwellings to fire victims, as long as it doesn’t displace farmworkers or other agriculture employees.

The temporary farmland housing rules would remain in effect through 2019.

Meanwhile, the debris removal proposal up for consideration at today’s board meeting spells out how the county will handle homeowners who don’t accept the free government program offered for cleaning up the charred remnants of destroyed homes.

Those homeowners will need to submit a separate application with a work plan and, once the debris has been cleared, they will have to turn in a certification to the county showing the work was completed appropriately. They will need to either completely remove their home’s foundation or submit an engineer’s letter certifying the foundation is safe to keep in place and explaining why.

Many have already opted for the free government cleanup — 881 homeowners submitted detailed right-of-entry forms to allow the work as of Friday, according to a county spokesman.

Supervisors also are set to vote on a plan to transfer $3 million in available funds to a new fund to pay for disaster response.

Christina Rivera, the county’s budget manager, said the new fund could be used for costs such as staff overtime, and its creation will help the county more easily track disaster expenses.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we come back and add more money,” she said.