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.
“There was no playbook for what our county went through last year,” he said at the outset of the session. “Our best emergency planning efforts could not have foreseen or anticipated how to prepare and deal with such massive destruction.”
David Guhin, director of Santa Rosa Planning and Economic Development Department and its Resilient City Permit Center, said 317 residential permits were in process as of his presentation. Of those, 160 plans are in the review phase, and 97 are actively under construction. He said this number almost equals all 350 housing units approved in the city in 2017.
Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the new name for 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 had been approved, and 80 of these were 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.
At the end of February, Wick announced a 35 percent–40 percent reduction in fees and a three- to five-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 three to five days.
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 Policyholders survey, some 80 percent 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.
Tips for faster permit processing
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, according to the county of Sonoma agency. 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, email, etc).
When Permit Sonoma employees comment on a specific plan, applicants should respond as quickly as possible. A preapplication 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.
Permit Sonoma planning and construction permit reports: sonomacounty.ca.gov/PRMD/Permit-Reports/
Santa Rosa Resilient City Permit Center: srcity.org/2675/rebuilding
More coverage of the recovery from the October wildfires: nbbj.news/recovery