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There are hundreds of factors involved in coordinating our community’s efforts to continue to develop an economic environment that is powerful, accelerating, and moving forward. We all want innovative ideas and efficient programs that will positively affect and empower Sonoma County’s economic engine.

No one would argue the importance of supporting small business and small business’s role in advancing the economy. Small business/small business entrepreneurship continues to be a driving force in moving the economy forward; not just locally, but nationally. People with a drive to create, lots of discipline, a resume and a great idea are a major piece of the economic puzzle that the city needs to empower and support in all ways possible.

 The City of Santa Rosa adopted an "Economic Sustainability Strategy Program” in May of 2010 to pledge to the citizens and the business community that they were on-board to create a business friendly environment. The Chamber of Commerce recently adopted a Program called BEST to promote innovation in the business economic environment.

 In the spirit of continuing to develop a business friendly business environment, it is time for the City Planning Department to re-visit its use permit policy and consider all avenues available to simplify the current zoning code.

The city’s procedure’s for business owners to get zoning clearance to occupy buildings has quietly become a lengthy procedure that is hampering business development in Santa Rosa.

 Currently, there are well over 500 PD (Planned Development) zoning designations in the City of Santa Rosa.

Presently, if a property is located in one of the PD zones it often requires a use permit in order to get a zoning clearance to occupy that building. In order to get a use permit you are required to pay a $2,400 fee and you must be prepared to wait eight to 10 weeks to get the use permit approved. Keep in mind that going through the process doesn’t necessarily mean you will be approved.

 This policy ineffectiveness is further exacerbated by the current abbreviated city planning hours and the number of part-time staff available to process the use permits.

 I am not referring to uses that do need to be scrutinized for neighborhood suitability, i.e., a church, a school, medical marijuana dispensary, medical use in a neighborhood, card room, adult bookstore etc.

 The problem is the PD zoned properties are often saddled with this laborious use permit process and it is stagnating business development.

For instance, I have a client who bought a small craftsmen building on Mendocino Avenue who was told initially that any use there would require a use permit. Doesn’t it seem a little narrow that the city can’t identify any uses for that building that would not require a use permit in order to promote occupancy for that building? The building sat vacant for months in part because of that.

What about selling/buying a building?

Most commercial purchases with a loan contingency require a 30-day due diligence period and a 60-day period for loan approval. Consider the fact that nothing will happen to begin the purchase process until the buyer knows the city will approve the use. That can mean an eight-to10-week delay for a use permit approval before you can even begin the purchase process.

 Fifteen years ago a use permit cost $50 and Santa Rosa had a full staff of people on-board to process such documents, but things have changed dramatically.

 I realize scrutinizing over 500 PD zones will require a lot of focus and will be time consuming to simplify, but the fact this behemoth system even exists is reason enough to re-evaluate unreasonable restrictions and streamline the business occupancy process in Santa Rosa.

 Reducing the red tape and expenses connected to zoning compliance in the city of Santa Rosa is critical to creating a business atmosphere that will contribute to job development and job retention. The various economic development programs would do well to focus attention on this area that functions as bedrock for business growth. ...

Annette Cooper is a senior real estate advisor with Keegan and Coppin/ONCOR International in Santa Rosa, 707-528-1400, ACooper@KeeganCoppin.com.