Sonoma County agreed Monday to outsource the processing and approval of thousands of permits related to the rebuilding efforts in unincorporated areas devastated by the October wildfires.
The Board of Supervisors signed off on a $20 million, three-year contract with San Ramon-based West Coast Code Consultants Inc., which will set up a special fire-related permitting center inside modular buildings at the county administrative center in north Santa Rosa.
In hiring the outside planning firm, county officials are aiming to establish a permitting process for fire victims that’s both faster and cheaper than the county’s normal way of doing business.
The new permit center has its work cut out already: Staff members estimate the fires in October claimed an estimated 2,000 residential units and another 1,000 residential accessory structures in the unincorporated county alone.
Supervisor David Rabbitt admitted the county can’t prevent some fire victims from deciding not to rebuild, but it can make parts of the rebuilding effort smoother.
“What we do control is the county process,” Rabbitt said. “And within that process, what we control is time and money.”
The county’s move follows a similar approach taken by the Santa Rosa City Council, which in November approved a $9 million contract with Bureau Veritas North America Inc. to establish a separate permit process for fire-ravaged properties within city limits.
Under the county’s new model, a range of fees for properties in the burned areas have been reduced around 30 to 40 percent. Impact fees — generally charged to cover the added strain a new development places on county roads, parks and other resources — were already waived entirely.
County officials exhibited a few case studies of how the fee changes would translate to real projects, with total permit fees ranging from more than $5,500 to nearly $6,800. Home sizes in those examples ranged from nearly 1,700 square feet to nearly 2,300 square feet, and they had garages, porches and retaining walls of various sizes.
The contract further seeks to guarantee faster time frames for the planning process in the burn areas. Initial plan checks should take five business days or less and rechecks shouldn’t last more than three business days. Ten percent of the permit fees will be refunded to the client if West Coast Code Consultants fails to meet the turnaround time, county officials said.
Supervisors were eager to get the new permit center up and running, but also want to take further steps later to reduce costs and timing even more.
Rabbitt, an architect, said he’d prefer a firmer commitment on how fast building permits would actually get issued. He and other supervisors are also interested in testing a model where licensed designers could self-certify their plans are up to code without having to go through an extensive county-sponsored review.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins suggested finding a way to help homeowners cover the cost of their permit fees if they don’t have enough help from insurance — or don’t have insurance at all.
“Our biggest concern, of course, is those folks who are underinsured for whom that five, six, seven thousand dollars might make or break their ability to rebuild or cause them to change the size of their dwelling, which ultimately results in a loss of equity,” Hopkins said.
As people are allowed back into their homes in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, there are several safety issues to remember.
•Do not touch debris. Ash is a hazardous waste. Other hazards could include asbestos, heavy metals, byproducts of plastic combustion and other chemicals. Do not transport ash or debris to landfills or transfer stations. To be eligible for state-funded debris cleanup by CalRecycle, residents cannot move or spread debris. Any action by residents to remove debris may force CalRecycle to declare a site ineligible for the program.
•Wear protective clothing: closed-toed shoes, long pants, eye protection, a face mask and gloves.
•Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper masks found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles like sawdust and will not protect your lungs from the smaller particles found in wildfire smoke. If you want to wear a mask, look for one with a particulate respirator, labeled NIOSH-approved, marked N95 or P100. Look for them on Amazon, Home Depot or other hardware retailers.
•Keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed.
•Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution like smoking, burning candles or using fireplaces. Vacuuming stirs up particles inside your house, contributing to indoor pollution.
•Do not turn PG&E service on. Either PG&E has been there and turned the gas on or homeowners must wait for them to do so. Customers without gas service should stay as close to home as possible so service can be restored when a PG&E representative arrives. If no one is at home, the representative will leave a notice with a number that customers can call to schedule a return visit. PG&E can be reached at 800-743-5000.
•If you see downed power lines near your home, treat them as if they are “live” or energized and extremely dangerous. Keep yourself and others away from them. Call 911, then notify PG&E at 800-743-5002.