SANTA ROSA -- The Planning and Permitting Study Group formed by the Mayor’s Economic Development Task Force has identified issues and practices in the city of Santa Rosa’s Community Development Department that it believes should be re-examined in an effort to streamline application and permitting processes to support Santa Rosa’s business stimulus efforts.

The key focus is to review service fees that make up the total cost-recovery system, and whether or not to keep or abandon this method, as well as to better understand how other jurisdictions charge fees. In addition, they will focus on fees charged to small businesses and the impact fees developers are charged.

The group suggested that case study comparisons of fees in cities with economic stimulus programs should be performed to measure efficiencies associated with desk audits, to create metrics as well as to track and compare results.

Municipalities that have taken recovery actions within the last three years include Grass Valley, American Canyon, Fresno, Redding, Manteca, Elk Grove, Stockton, Emeryville as well as Shasta County.

The Study Group proposed accelerating CDD efficiency with same day plan checks, making planning and permitting departments economic drivers, establishing a review process to revisit the emerging issues list, and creating an advisory committee to re-validate and determine possible fee suspensions, deferrals or updates that could be considered.

The committee found that assessing fees based on higher property values three to five years ago no longer pencil’s out, and called for a fee comparison among other cities with an eye toward lowering and/or updating fees to reflect current property values.

Other suggestions involve the possibility of incentivizing small business applicants with 25 employees or less, lowering fees by categories (permit types) or imposing no fees on a case-by-case basis.

The group outlined its preliminary findings and suggestions on July 28 as targets for future consideration, while also addressing a variety of other concerns.

“This is only the beginning. Our Task Force is just starting to get into the solutions phase. More research and fact-finding meetings will be held with civil engineers, those involved in processing service and impact fees as well as other stakeholders to delve deeper into the issues,” said Jake Ours, Vice Mayor of Santa Rosa.

Members of the study group include Rob Cantu, with Western Builders and chair of the Study Group; Paul Schwartz, with Cassidy Turley BT Commercial; Doug Hilberman, Axia Architects; Tony Battaglia, Archumana Architects; Greg Hurd, BKF Carlenzoli; Lisa Wittke Schaffner, Sonoma County Alliance, and Joe Ripple, with Schellenger Brothers Development.

On the issue of building fees, Mr. Cantu noted they “cannot be prohibitive and must be made affordable so they are not impediments to building projects or virtually eliminate the return on investment for developers. If there is quicker turnaround on permits, new job creation will result in more tax revenue. Such reduced fees would open the front of the hopper.”

“The CDD has already targeted many of these areas of study and has implemented some change, but it’s time to bring industry and city staff together and go all the way. If we don’t there will be little to talk about – it will be too late,” Mr. Cantu said.

The Study Group believes fees need to more closely approximate current needs, and that emerging or sustainable markets must be identified.

Such a program would be integrated with area specific plans and address defined profit centers.  However, they felt that area specific plans should be based upon logic and not “feel good ideas” and that projects should be fast-tracked by “greasing the skids” if they meet the areas specific plans.

Another proposal for consideration addressed the complicated system of entitlements that the group believes should be streamlined through design review and planning processes with an emphasis on combining efforts and creating a more predictable fee structure.

The group pointed out that fee interpretation should be solidified through the use of case studies and by surveying planning and permit applicants to see what went right or what went wrong.  They said greater consistency in fee determination by staff members should be a prime objective, along with the development of a possible flat fee approach.

Furthermore, they intimated that the new chief building official should be hired with input from stakeholders, including city and industry representatives.

Members of the study group believe that the scope of work for the Planning Commission should be clearly defined in rules and policy guidelines to keep the commission within its area of responsibility.

They said that the 1 percent public-art fee should be reviewed for appropriateness in light of the current economic environment as part of a general review of similar fees for possible revision or suspension.

There was support for both identifying and upgrading outdated technology in favor of greater efficiency and increased customer service.

One approach would be to apply “tech fees” to actual tech improvements and to implement a paperless, on-line application process. Adding more planning and permitting status updates on-line, along with Frequently Asked Questions and answers, were also seen as viable improvements.  A bi-annual staff and industry forum on technology was suggested as a way to keep pace with new tools and techniques.

The group’s findings document said that there is a need for a review of who and how nexus studies are interpreted.  The term “nexus study” refers to the Sonoma County Workforce Housing Linkage Fee Study published by Economic and Planning Systems, Inc., in December 2001.

According to their findings, evidence should be provided of the city’s determination of the nexus study and to re-visit these findings to ensure that there is conformance with current home prices.

A suspension of capital facilities fees and affordable housing fees was also suggested, noting that there has been a reduction in low income housing requirements with more than enough inventory in today’s market.

The study group supports the city’s participation in the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce’s BEST (Building Economic Success Together) program, as well as the need to identify and tailor services to strong and emerging markets.

When it comes to the overall permitting and planning fee structure, the group noted that the city should “use the customer to design the product.”

“The current list of public works projects has millions of dollars attached to it earmarked from development fees,” said Mr. Schwartz, “We will be looking at the sources of these fees, how they are allocated and used along with the status of these funds prior to the Task Force and City Council taking up these issues.”

The next meeting of the city of Santa Rosa’s Economic Competitiveness Task Force will be held at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 9, at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa.