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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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.

“We’re trying to accomplish the same goal by expediting the review,” Wick said. “Because it’s a labor-intensive process, the less time that’s spent on it, hopefully we can negotiate a lower fee for the fire survivors as they’re going through a process that, hopefully, will be a week.”

The county plans to soon adopt a similar approach as Santa Rosa, which recently approved a $9 million contract to outsource its October fire-related permitting process to Bureau Veritas North America, Inc. for at least the next two years. Wick said

County staff members have chosen a preferred candidate to handle the effort and are negotiating an agreement to bring before supervisors, according to Wick.

The firm will set up shop — possibly by the end of January — inside modular buildings already in place at the county government complex in northern Santa Rosa, Wick said.

“The last thing I want to do is fill them up with folks and have the process be what it was before,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, an architect. “I think even if it was half as long as it was before, it’s going to be twice as long for too many people.”

Within Santa Rosa city limits, permits for rebuilding homes destroyed in the fires should typically cost around $5,000 for an average 1,800-square-foot home, according to Jesse Oswald, the city’s acting chief building official.

Like the county, Santa Rosa won’t require the owners of fire-ravaged homes to pay impact fees, which are generally charged to cover the added strain a new development places on roads, parks, sewers and other resources. Typically, homeowners end up paying less for permitting in the unincorporated areas because cities have more impact fees, Wick said.

Still, Rabbitt said he wanted to reduce the county’s estimated fee amounts to even lower than the current estimates.

“Some of that means, if you have to perform less work on each project, you charge less of a fee, and that only makes sense to me,” he said. “This is a prime opportunity … to do things differently, be more efficient, less expensive and not get in the way of people wanting to restart their lives.”

Nancy Brier, who lost a home she owned in the Mark West area due to the fires, worried the county had already erected too much red tape for fire victims. Frustrated even by the process required to set up a trailer on her burned-out property, Brier expressed concern that costly permits and government intransigence could deter homeowners like her from rebuilding.

As she wrote in a late November blog post, Brier doesn’t think fire victims should have to pay anything in permit fees.

“It’s short-sighted thinking on the part of the county and the city,” she said. “If you make it really hard for people to rebuild, and they establish life somewhere else and they put their kids in school and they get a new job or figure out some other way to live, then they’re gone, and it’s harder to come back after a certain amount of time.”

Brier and her husband also lost a home in Lake County two years ago during the Valley fire. Today, much of her Cobb Mountain street has not been rebuilt — the home she owned included.

“We’ve already seen this movie,” Brier said. “It just was too hard and it cost too much. So people didn’t go back.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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