Sonoma County property owners whose homes were destroyed in the October wildfires have until the end of Wednesday to apply for the private sector debris cleanup program, or officials could remove the burned remains on the residents’ behalf and bill them for it later.
Most fire victims who lost homes already signed up for the public debris removal program, but county officials previously authorized a private process for residents who want to opt out of that effort or don’t qualify. With the private program deadline arriving Wednesday and the public deadline having passed Nov. 13, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday established a process for dealing with unincorporated properties whose owners choose neither option.
For those sites, the county plans to send the owners a notice letting them know of the government’s intent to have the debris cleaned anyway. A summary of that notice would also be posted prominently on the property at least 10 days before the cleanup occurs.
After the forced cleanup is done, the property owners will get another notice from the county informing them of the actions taken and the costs the owner will need to pay. Those costs could become a lien against the property.
Owners will have time to file written appeals at both steps in the process, and the County Counsel’s Office could initiate judicial enforcement if necessary. Santa Rosa is handling its own process for fire-destroyed homes inside city limits that aren’t entered into either debris cleanup program. No deadline has been set for property owners.
“We really need to be protective of the public health and safety, also the environment, and we need to ensure that when people start returning to their properties and are getting ready to rebuild, that we do not have properties that are still not cleaned and (are) contaminated out there,” Christine Sosko, the county’s environmental health director, told supervisors Tuesday.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the county received about 4,500 right-of-entry forms required from owners who want to participate in the debris removal effort led by the Army Corps of Engineers. About 3,760 forms have been approved so far, representing nearly 80 percent of the total amount possible, according to a county spokeswoman. County officials say there are some homeowner applications that won’t qualify for public debris removal.
Most right-of-entry forms were submitted by the Nov. 13 public deadline, but the county has continued to evaluate late submissions on a case-by-case basis, officials said.
Additionally, the county received 235 applications for the private debris cleanup effort as of Tuesday afternoon, and officials had approved more than 180 of those so far. Another 133 applications were received for alternative cleanups in Santa Rosa city limits and more than 80 were approved there, officials said. While the public cleanup option applies to everyone in the county, regardless of whether they live inside or outside city limits, the county and Santa Rosa have separate applications for their alternative debris removal programs.
More than 600 properties haven’t opted into either program, but officials expect that number to drop significantly as incomplete applications are wrapped up and more homeowners apply for the alternative effort in the final stretch before the deadline.
To make sure residents were aware of the deadlines, local officials attended numerous community meetings, mailed notices in English and Spanish and were making direct phone calls, Sosko said.