Shortly after the devastating October firestorm erupted, Sonoma County leaders moved to waive permit fees for the reconstruction of thousands of homes destroyed by the disaster, but they soon decided to reverse course.
While the county has typically been able to waive permit fees for rebuilding following floods along the lower Russian River, officials learned if they took a similar step after the recent wildfires — the worst natural calamity in the region’s history — it could jeopardize critical reimbursement dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the county’s planning chief.
“FEMA essentially said ‘Well, if you’re able to waive fees for fire survivors, that means you have enough money to cover other costs associated with the disaster,’” said Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the county’s land-use planning and permitting department.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors signed off on the initial waiver of permit fees as part of a resolution it approved Oct. 10. But supervisors reversed that step Nov. 7 in another resolution that said the fires were initially “only a local and state emergency” and had since become “subject to certain Federal regulations” that required rescinding the waiver.
That means the owner of a single-family home in an unincorporated area may now face more than $10,100 in fees for permits to rebuild a 1,500-square-foot residence with a 400-square-foot garage, according to county estimates. The fees could total more than $11,200 if the home is 2,000 square feet and more than $14,600 if it’s 3,000 square feet, the estimates show.
Those estimates are substantially lower than what the county could normally charge, because fire victims can still avoid certain fees required of new developments, and officials are determined to move the permits through much faster than normal.
Additionally, county staff members expect insurance companies to cover fee costs, and they’ve stressed homeowners can still seek relief from the Board of Supervisors if they’re uninsured or underinsured.
Yet many fire victims have said using insurance funds for permit fees would subtract from the amount available to help them reconstruct the home they lost. They’ve also voiced frustration about having to account for a substantial cost they initially thought they didn’t need to worry about — as well as what they described as an inability to get clear, consistent answers from the county.
“I’m not opposed to having to pay permit fees, but given the scope of what’s happened … I’m looking — for all of us — for some kind of relief,” said Brad Silvestro, who lost his Rincon Valley home during the wildfires. “I understand that this is a huge, monumental situation, not just for us, but for the permit and resource staff that have to permit the rebuilding. But it’s been 11 weeks, and it still seems like it’s kind of a moving target.”
Wick called the realization the county would need to charge permit fees surprising, to an extent, given the scale of the destruction. But he stressed the county has “had great federal support” during the recovery process.
Wick said the county is trying to keep the fees as low as possible by working quickly. Normally, residents could face permit fee costs of more than $35,800 to nearly $69,500, according to previous estimates.