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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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.

Already, the county has issued permits for eight new single-family homes and 18 remodels of homes that were damaged but not destroyed in the burn areas, according to Permit Sonoma director Tennis Wick. Residents who had their permits processed under older fee schedules will be issued refunds, Wick said.

The county has the modular structures installed for the new permitting center, but another few weeks are necessary to get the staffing in place and systems to prepared to handle the influx, according to Wick.

“We’re starting a $20 million enterprise,” Wick said in an interview. “This is not something you want to leap into.”

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