Santa Rosa and County Permitting Officials Report on Rebuilding and the Need for Speed
Responding to concerns over the pace of Sonoma County’s recovery after the fires, as well as complaints about building permit delays, directors of Permit Sonoma (County) and the Resilient City Permit Center in Santa Rosa said policy and procedural changes are being made to accelerate the process. While some say the rate of homebuilding should be faster, these officials believe that 177 houses under construction in both jurisdictions are a great start seven months into recovery.
Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builder’s Exchange, moderated a panel discussion held at the Sonoma County Alliance’s monthly meeting on May 2 and opened the dialogue by saying, “There was no playbook for what our county went through last year. Our best emergency planning efforts could not have foreseen or anticipated how to prepare and deal with such massive destruction.”
David Guhin, director of the City of Santa Rosa Planning and Economic Development Department and the Resilient City Permit Center, said to date, 317 residential permits are in process. Of that, 160 plans are in the review phase and 97 are actively under construction. He said this number almost equals the total (350) of all housing units approved in 2017
Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma (Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department), reported that about 1,000 permits ranging from electrical permits for wells to new houses in the county have been approved and 80 of these are already under construction. He believes more will come in as residents elect to join group applications submitted by developers planning to rebuild en masse while limiting designs to four or five floor plans. For planning and construction permit reports, go to: https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/PRMD/Permit-Reports/.
At the end of February, Wick announced a 35-40% reduction in fees and a 3-5 day turnaround in permitting as the county’s objective. Wick said the county has met this goal.
Guhin also stated that Santa Rosa is seeing turnaround times for the first plan check in 3-5 days.
Permit Sonoma has posted a series of tips on its website about how to help reduce permit-processing cycle. The most important factor in shortening plan review time is the completeness of the plans. Applicants are advised to review local zoning and building code regulations, and check for any land use conditions that may apply to their parcel.
Applicants should also make sure that Permit Sonoma knows who should be contacted about the plan review (owner, contractor, designer, etc.) and how best to contact that person (phone, e-mail, etc).
When Permit Sonoma employees comment on a specific plan, applicants should respond as quickly as possible. A pre-application meeting with the Permit Sonoma staff should be considered, and applicants are advised to bring in their draft plans and meet with staff members in each cubical to get initial feedback.
Business owners should ensure that they have good quality control and quality assurance for their applications, and to take the time to have internal review of applications before submitting them to Permit Sonoma.
Although the actual plan approval process is moving quickly, homeowners are seeing delays in getting back into their homes. Wick and Guhin said there are several reasons for what are perceived as delays, including the fact that the design and development community is under pressure — with only six local geotechnical engineers, for example.
In most cases, they said, longer turnaround times are not due to the permitting staff, but are caused by delays in people submitting permit applications, or applications that are incomplete.
The timing issue is also impacted by insurance challenges. According to a recent United Policy Holders survey, some 80% of those affected still have not completed filing and resolving insurance claims.
“During the last three months of 2017 the focus was on debris removal and EPA soil tests. We’re identifying potential barriers and pitfalls in our permit-handling process to find ways to speed things up,” Said Guhin.
Wick’s goal for Permit Sonoma is for it to be a full-service shop, doing everything that can improve the permitting process from electronic plan checks to modifying workflows and adopting new techniques to gain efficiencies. Activities within its three divisions are being broken down to see what practices should be kept, revised or adjusted.
“To keep our economy humming, we’re restructuring internally to address the need for housing. We can’t wait for the traditional process and want to look at changing the rules.”
Both directors said residents that are planning to rebuild homes are still trying to determine if they should have the same size home, downsize, add a micro-unit internally, or build a separate Accessory Dwelling Unit on their property for added (rental) income. Some may also elect to relocate the new house on another part of the lot. A number of applications are not for an exact replacement of the original home.”
Wick revealed that on May 8 the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors plans to announce new changes regarding ADU’s and second units.
Guhin pointed out that business owners are also reviewing their options. While the Hilton Hotel in the Round Barn area will be rebuilt, the owners of the Fountaingrove hotel are looking at potential design modifications. The former K-Mart site will have other uses, and restaurant owners are considering making changes to their use profiles. Property owners are advised to finalize design changes before filing applications to save processing time.
For example, Wick said the 74-unit Estancia Apartments on Old Redwood Highway in Larkfield was on a septic system before being completely destroyed by fire. Permit Sonoma’s housing team reached out to the owner and challenged him to build 120 apartments. After examining the design, the owner submitted a proposal for 96 units on sewer.
Wick’s team worked with the Sonoma County Water Agency to defer the approximately $1 million sewer connection fee so it could be absorbed into construction financing instead of resulting in an out-of-pocket expense for the builder. This upgraded plan was submitted in December, approved for a permit in February and construction is anticipated to start in June.
The economic hit taken by the region in the wake of the fires also includes an estimated $800,000 in Transit Occupancy Tax dollars lost when three hotels burned. In addition, $1.2 million in estimated sales tax dollars from businesses was also lost, but there has been a recent spike in new car, furniture, appliance and clothing purchases as fire victims replace what was damaged or destroyed. Some 2,500 cars were destroyed in the fires.
According to Guhin, information about the status of permits changes daily and updates are being posted on its website for the public to see. It’s not just about rebuilding after the fires, a significant number of new building projects are also in the pipeline and we need to use every resource to address the current housing crisis.”
The Resilient City Permit Center’s website (https://srcity.org/2675/rebuilding) shows the status of rebuilding efforts in five phases. In Phase 1, some 157 residential parcels in Santa Rosa still have not yet completed debris cleanup operations. In Phase 2, some 2,169 parcels have had debris completely cleared. Phase 3 reveals how many permit reviews are in process. Phase 4 shows the number of permits that have been issued with construction pending, and Phase 5 indicates how many parcels are actively in construction. Other maps and charts at this site show the progress of rebuilding in various locations.
To help review an estimated 3,000 rebuilding permits over the next couple of years, the City has contracted with an outside firm to support the workload, ensure rebuilding applications are given priority and allow other review work to continue without added delay. Guhin said he eventually wants to expand this accelerated permitting process to address all permit categories the Resilient City Permit Center handles.
“We’ve taken a SWAT team-style approach to looking at the rebuild effort and to generate additional new housing. One of the City’s top priorities in 2018 is to generate housing in the downtown core near transit services. Just last week the City received an $800,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to update the Downtown Specific Plan to address the need for increased density through changes in building height and parking requirements. The goal is to attract added resources into the City and to determine where inner city development can take place.
Woods asked if both permitting staffs are buying into the new “change” mentality being proposed to alter the old “Can Do vs. No You Can’t Do” attitude?
Wick said his organization is hiring more young people with fresh ideas who are often challenged when it comes to buying houses for themselves. He also said there are several fire survivors in his shop that want to see things done differently.
“A year ago we lost 10 staff members through retirements, and now have 200 applications to go through, and we may have to co-house those coming here from out of the area.”
“Those in my organization are definitely buying in,” Guhin said. “It starts at the top. Our City Council and Board of Supervisors made it clear that we need a more creative approach to rebuilding 30,000 new housing units in the City and County by 2023. Both of these entities are looking to create a scoreboard that will display the number of units permitted as well as information on the timing involved to produce housing units.
As part of this comprehensive plan, he mentioned that Santa Rosa is also considering a plan to build 20 to 30 ADUs in two months, costing from $20,000 to $40,000 per unit, to test this concept as a housing alternative. A modular home package option is already being deployed in Coffey Park.
Wick said the biggest problem for small contractors and group builders is the cost per square foot to rebuild, now in a range of from $800 to $900/s.f. in the foothills for single homes, but only about $300/s.f. for homes constructed by group builders.
Another issue is where are construction crews going to live. Some developers are buying homes to use as “bunk houses” for their workers. For small contractors, it is harder to find subcontractors since many are already committed to large builders.
Addressing the benzene problem found in certain pipelines of homes burned in some Fountaingrove sections, Guhin said alternatives to the estimated $43 million pipe replacement cost are being discussed. He predicted that a long-term solution for this problem should be forthcoming in a couple of weeks.
He said there are many positives that have emerged involving new relationships with organizations such as United Way, Tipping Point and Catholic Charities (working with Burbank Housing) stepping up to fund new and affordable housing. “We also need to work closely with the design community to help us rebuild in the right way.”
Wick said our fires hit home among people worldwide and everyone was concerned about how we would recover and rebuild. “It’s all about networking. The entire community has been, and continues to be involved, showing an incredible magnanimous spirit of cooperation and support among all concerned.”