SANTA ROSA -- As part of a wide-ranging review of zoning and permitting policies to spur business growth, the city of Santa Rosa plans to try same-day permitting for simple commercial tenant improvements, possibly shortening a process that can take weeks.

Likely starting near the beginning of the new year and running for a few months, the city's current over-the-counter building permit service for basic projects will expand to include tenant renovations that simply need review by the building and fire departments before a building permit can be issued. On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, if the licensed professional on the project can simply make "red-lined" corrections to the plans, and the project doesn't need discretionary approvals or other permits beforehand, a building permit could be issued that day.

"It reduces demand on our staff, and it's about getting businesses open quicker," said Chuck Regalia, city Community Development director. Planning staff reductions and relocation of the Fire Department out of City Hall were big factors.

The pilot New Business Startup Partnership program will be meant for interior improvements in existing buildings with zoning that allows a given type of business and no significant input needed from other agencies or city departments, he said. It may also work for small restaurant and food-service projects that already had county health and city sewage permits.

"The faster you get a permit, the faster a project can be built," said Rob Cantu, president of commercial general contractor Western Builders and a task force member. A couple of his projects are among the test cases this month for the same-day system.

This programs would dovetail with a wider economic-development effort commissioned by the City Council earlier this year to  review, amend or replace zoning in a number of commercial areas of the city by July of next year. The intent is to align zoning with existing uses in the area and goals in the 2009 General Plan, so more types of businesses would have the right to locate there without going through the sometimes months-long use-permit process.

Shortening the move-in time will help property owners having to offer free rent to attract tenants and businesses having to pay rent ahead of occupying choice spaces, according to Mr. Cantu. 

This pilot same-day plan check program was hammered out in November after meetings between the Mayor's Economic Competitiveness Task Force, which includes local building industry and real estate professionals, and officials from Community Development and fire departments.