Private option on debris cleanup approved by Sonoma County for destroyed homes

Coffey Park residents return to their neighborhood almost two weeks after the Tubbs fire destroyed the neighborhood, Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. (KENT PORTER/ PD)

J.D. MORRIS,

Sonoma County fire victims who don’t want to sign up for the government’s free program to clear the remains of their destroyed homes will now be able to follow an alternative debris removal process authorized Tuesday by the Board of the Supervisors.

The move is meant to speed cleanup from the North Bay fires, which comprises the largest debris removal in California history. With rain now in the forecast, the work needs to happen quickly, officials said, to address risks to public health and the environment, including drinking water supplies for hundreds of thousands of local residents.

“We need to take that threat very seriously,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “It’s not just about their individual property. It’s about the entire watershed and all of the people, not to mention wildlife, that rely on that watershed for essential services.”

The alternative option allows homeowners a sanctioned choice to go it alone with private contractors instead of filling out the standard right-of-entry form giving access to the Army Corps of Engineers. Those homeowners will need to submit an application, along with a work plan, to county health officials.

Officials hope to have that application and guidance document available by Monday, if not before this weekend, according to Christine Sosko, the county’s environmental health and safety director.

Private contractors will be held to the same standards for removing, transporting and disposing of hazardous materials as the government program. After the cleanup is done, homeowners also will need to provide a certification to show the work was completed properly.

Already, more than 1,000 people have submitted right-of-entry forms to enroll in the public cleanup program, according to a county spokesman. But some residents have held back amid skepticism about signing up for free government help, among other reasons.

The county has yet to set a paperwork deadline for either of the two options, but the board indicated it may do so next week.

Public cleanup workers, beginning this week, are set to remove concrete foundations and scrape the soil underneath all burned homes to make sure the site is free of possible contaminants and safe for rebuilding.

Under the private option, residents will be required either to have their foundation replaced or secure a licensed engineer’s letter demonstrating the foundation’s suitability for rebuilding, county officials said.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who is an architect, stressed the safety risks associated with trying to preserve the foundation of a home destroyed in the fires.

“It makes no sense to build a half a million-dollar house on top of a five-buck foundation,” Rabbitt said. “People really need to take that into account.”

Still, John Bly, executive vice president with the Northern California Engineering Contractors Association, urged supervisors not to rush the deadline by which homeowners must make a decision about whether to opt into the government cleanup program.

“For them to make an educated decision, we’ve got to get the information out as quickly as we can,” Bly said. “The homeowners are really screaming out there, and this is unfair to them.”

Supervisors also agreed Tuesday to add more temporary living options for fire victims by opening up a new category of farmland for housing. Property owners will now be allowed to rent existing buildings on land covered by conservation deals known as Williamson Act contracts. The 1965 state law provides property tax relief for farmers who restrict their land use to agriculture and open space.

Sonoma County’s 2,590 Williamson Act properties would not normally be allowed to have housing that wasn’t directly related to farm operations, according to county officials. But supervisors agreed to let landowners rent buildings on those properties in order to expand the housing stock as quickly as possible.

Supervisors indicated they were open to allowing owners of Williamson Act farmland to host new temporary housing structures, rather than just being able to rent their existing dwellings. They are likely to consider that matter next week. The temporary farmland housing rules will remain in effect through 2019.

Additionally, supervisors agreed Tuesday to establish a new fund to help pay for disaster recovery costs and track expenses. They are initially putting $3 million into the fund, which will be used for paying costs such as staff overtime, according to budget manager Christina Rivera.

“Obviously, it doesn’t seem like this is a $3 million problem — it is much more than that,” Rabbitt said. “(But) this is a smart thing to do at this particular point in time.”

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