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Surge in Santa Rosa permits

Permit applications for planning, engineering and building jumped 21 percent last year:

2007: 6,768

2008: 5,392

2009: 4,675

2010: 4,895

2011: 5,582

2012: 5,271

2013: 5,913

2014: 5,837

2015: 7,046

Source: City of Santa Rosa

As Santa Rosa grapples with a historic housing crisis, city officials are trying to tackle the problem from many angles.

They’re boosting outreach services to homeless people, exploring ways to add incentives to spur the construction of more affordable housing and considering a rent control ordinance.

But a largely behind-the-scenes effort to streamline the city’s own development review process, which builders have bemoaned for years as expensive and painfully unpredictable, takes center stage this week.

Nine months after a consultant issued a blistering report that labeled the planning department dysfunctional and suggested dozens of changes, the department will ask the City Council on Tuesday for a nearly $1.3 million budget bump aimed at improving the city’s ability to deal with a logjam of new commercial and housing projects.

“We understand the importance of time, cost and certainty to getting these projects through the development review process, and we are doing our best to address each of those,” said David Guhin, interim director of Santa Rosa’s planning and economic development department.

Toward that end, Guhin is seeking approval for more full-time employees to address chronic staffing shortages and more money for consultants to clear out the short-term crush of applications. In addition, Guhin wants upgrades to the department’s computer system to more efficiently manage, track and publicize information about development applications.

Taken individually, the changes won’t dramatically reduce the time it takes for builders to navigate the city’s bureaucratic gauntlet or allow them to immediately build anything approaching the number of new homes and apartments needed to meet the demand.

Nor will it do anything to address the thorny side issue of how to encourage developers to build more affordable housing, something the city is moving toward on a separate track.

But combined with other changes the department has made in recent months — like expanding the hours it is open to the public — officials are hopeful they can ease the burdens on developers and repair the city’s reputation as a difficult place to do business, without eroding residents’ ability to influence what gets built in their neighborhoods.

“We’re confident the resources we’re requesting on Tuesday will give us a big bump toward addressing the council’s housing goals, as well as all the work we have been doing on our multi-year process improvements,” Guhin said.

For developers with millions riding on getting their projects approved, built and sold, talk is cheap. While the city is saying the right things, some developers have yet to see the promised efficiencies.

San Francisco-based City Ventures wants to build 400 homes in five projects in various stages of approval in the northwest and southwest sections of the city. The company purchased the undeveloped properties in 2013 and to date has yet to pull a single building permit.

There are plenty of reasons for the delays, including revisions to previously approved subdivision plans to better reflect the current market, and the presence of endangered tiger salamander habitat on the properties. But getting through the city’s process has been an exasperating experience.

“I have five projects. I have four different planners I’ve worked with. It’s almost like working in four different places sometimes,” said Charity Wagner, development director for the company.

On one project, she was told a grading permit would take six weeks — it has taken 11 and counting. Other projects have been waiting six months to get before the Planning Commission, she said. Staff members are smart and capable, but others seem to lack a “get-it-done attitude,” Wagner said.

“I’d like to continue to encourage staff to think creatively about ways to make things happen better and faster,” she said.

She’s not the only one frustrated with the pace of change. Robert Cantu, president of Santa Rosa-based contractor Western Builders, has expressed concern that time-sensitive projects are getting farmed out to consultants instead of handled by in-house staff.

Others, however, say they are seeing the beginnings of a cultural change in the department under new leadership, one they say bodes well for the future.

Keith Christopherson, once the largest homebuilder in the county and now a partner in Synergy Communities, said he’s seeing staff take a much more collaborative, constructive approach to projects than in the past.

Planners are more willing than ever to help applicants understand upfront where the likely land mines in their proposed projects are, Christopherson said. That, in turn, keeps costs down, lenders happy and makes the process smoother for everyone, he said.

“It’s a big change,” Christopherson said. “It used to be you’d go in and you kind of felt like you were on an island.”

Jean Kapolchok, a veteran Santa Rosa development consultant, said she has seen a palpable change in the department.

“Usually, these efforts are simply painting the elephant a different color, but not this time,” Kapolchok said.

One technique the city is using is meeting more regularly with people before they even submit an application, said supervising planner Bill Rose. These are informal sit-downs between an applicant and staff from several departments — planning, engineering, fire — to go over the requirements of a particular project so there are as few surprises as possible.

Developer Phil Natoli said he’s trying to build a small subdivision of seven homes in northwest Santa Rosa and found his pre-application meeting with Rose and others invaluable. There are always going to be surprises in building projects, but the insights he gained from the meeting were important, he said.

“At least we’re able to plan to some degree to overcome most of the hurdles,” Natoli said.

The pre-application meetings are a key way the department is helping bring consistency to the development review process, Guhin said. Additional staff training is another, he said.

But hiring a passel of staff to deal with the influx of new projects is not something Guhin is ready to propose. His request on Tuesday contains funding for just two new employees — one a technician at the front counter to allow for expanded hours, and another a technology specialist to make full use of the department’s new permit-tracking software.

A third new position for a building inspector will make an existing contract building inspector a city staffer, but it won’t add a new body.

Because of that, the city’s chief building official, Mark Setterland, said he didn’t expect much to change in his department in the short term.

“It’s probably not going to substantially lower our backlog or our turnaround time,” Setterland said.

Both of those remain significant issues. The city has 1,137 new housing units in the active pipeline, including 267 apartments and 870 single-family homes. An additional 3,491 units are pre-approved but inactive, and could be revitalized at any time.

Setterland noted that housing isn’t the only kind of building activity going on. There are several major time-consuming commercial projects that are ongoing, such as the construction of a new Nordstrom Rack at Coddingtown Mall, he said.

The city simply doesn’t have the permanent staff to get to all the active projects in a reasonable amount of time, forcing it to hire contract plan-checkers and building inspectors to get the work done.

Even though the 126 building permits issued for new housing units in 2015 was the second-lowest amount in the past 45 years (94 were issued in 2009), overall permit activity in the city increased 21 percent last year, to 7,046.

Revenue generated by the department isn’t increasing at as fast a pace, however, rising just 13 percent over that same period. The biggest disparity was in the building department, where permits were up 16 percent, but revenue nudged up just 4 percent.

The disparity raises questions about whether the 2014 increases in building and permit fees are having their intended effect of closing the gap between what the city pays to run the planning, building and engineering departments and the fees customers pay to offset those costs.

The request on Tuesday is for an additional $500,000 to continue paying for consultants to get projects moving more quickly than they would otherwise, Guhin said.

Even though supporting housing development is a high priority for the City Council, Guhin said he is hesitant to ask for significant additional full-time city workers to deal with the current surge in building interest because the market is cyclical, and he doesn’t want to have to turn around and lay people off should things slow down, he said.

During the upcoming budget process, Guhin said he expects to ask for additional money for technology and staffing.

If the council approves the money Tuesday, Guhin said his department’s improvements are far from complete.

Some of the money, $100,000, is for consultants to help the department zero in on additional policy changes that might further improve the process, Guhin said.

Changes to the city’s hillside development ordinance and design review code are possibilities, Guhin said. The city plans to continue meeting with representatives of the building industry, as it did privately Thursday morning, to solicit feedback and ideas for improvement.

Mike Cook, a landscape architect with Firma Design Group, said there are pre-approved projects representing hundreds of housing units that could quickly be built if it weren’t for additional regulations instituted since their original approval date.

New requirements for stormwater management and rules for building on hillsides are just two examples of new rules bogging down pre-approved projects, he said. The hillside ordinance is particularly problematic, requiring an additional layer of approval for properties with a slope of 10 percent or more, he said.

Tweaking those rules could go a long way toward getting more homes built without any of the type of ridgeline concerns that triggered the rules in the first place, he said.

“What I’m hoping is we can revise the ordinance in a way that’s appropriate for city developers and residents,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to more accurately reflect the status of grading permits being sought by City Ventures and development director Charity Wagner’s views on city staff.

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