Sonoma County postfire rebuild streamlining is goal of new permit center

The Tubbs fire razed Pacific Heights Drive in Larkfield, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Santa Rosa. At top right, is the John B. Riebli Elementary School athletic fields. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017


Sonoma County is expecting later this month to open its center to help fire victims obtain permits for damaged or destroyed properties in unincorporated areas.

“We’re changing the way we do business to meet the challenge,” said Director Tennis Wick, director of the Permit & Resource Management Department, also called Permit Sonoma (, 707-565-6196).

The opening date is contingent upon signing a contract with a firm to help staff the facility. The center will be in mobile offices next to the department’s offices, which are at 2550 Ventura Ave. in Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa opened its Resilient City Rebuilding Center on Nov. 28.

October wildfires destroyed thousands of homes, and many victims are still wading through permit options and the process of getting permits to rebuild. According to Wick, chief among the inquiries being heard from the public are about fees — which ones will be waived or retained. He said the department is trying to both lower those costs to applicants and speed service.

“Our goal is to identify areas where we can offer reduced fees as well as be in a position to guarantee turnaround times for those anxious to accelerate permitting procedures and start to rebuild,” Wick said. “We want to get it right by being able to assure certainty for applicants when it comes to their ability to get what they need.”

He said Permit Sonoma was experiencing “box office demand” before the fire. Afterward, there was a marked increase in total applications: 9,000-plus by the end of November. Wick said that 16 homeowners in the unincorporated areas of the county have cleared debris and are currently in the permit pre-issuance phase — with many more to come.

While specific details about changes in county permit policies are still forthcoming, some differences between state, county and city of Santa Rosa approaches are beginning to surface.

For example, the state of California considers an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) to be a structure with up to 1,200 square feet, or up to roughly half the square footage of the main house for attached ADUs.

ADUs in Santa Rosa are functionally limited by the size of the house that could be built on lots. So a 1,500-square-foot house could have up to 750 square feet in an attached ADU. Currently, Sonoma County limits ADU size to 1,000 square feet, but staff is recommending the board of supervisors raise the ADU size to 1,000–1,200 square feet.

“The county can afford larger ADUs, or granny units, to be built, because lot sizes are bigger and many homeowners occupy multi-acre parcels,” Wick said.

Why such concern over ADUs? Wick said few homes are fully insured to cover today’s construction costs and compliance with current building codes.

“This rebuilding phase is probably the biggest financial hit most people will ever have to face,” he said. “My staff and I are meeting weekly with community groups to talk about options they may want to consider, such as building smaller.”

One of the options county staff mention to retirees and others is to think about replacing their original 3,000-square-foot or larger home with a junior unit and also building an ADU outside. That could provide $1,000 a month or more in rental income, while also contributing to the pool of available housing, Wick said.

Initial predictions were that a majority of burned homes would be rebuilt, but more “lot for sale” signs have been going up in burned areas such as Fountaingrove and Coffey Park.

“I can understand the dilemma faced by homeowners who are concerned about the future, worried about rebuilding costs, the length of the construction time frame or who are retired,” Wick said. “Some may elect to move away. We would not like to see people forced into that position. This is why we want to make sure that we provide as much certainty as possible when it comes to reducing the time and expense associated with reconstruction.”

Wick said the objective for the new permit center is to handle application turnaround in less than a week. To accomplish this, the soon-to-be-named consultant staffing it would have access to Permit Sonoma’s computer system, electronic plan-checking technology and online permit-application and –payment system, being able to check the status of permits or research permit histories via the web.

The usual permit process can be reduced because a number of the factors associated with seeking a permit may already have been satisfied, Wick said. For example, the permit application asks about access to the property, availability of water wells and septic systems, the grading of land into the lot, etc.

“While some of these items associated with burned homes may require repairs, the driveway, for example, may still be in place as well as underground pipes and hookups,” Wick said. “In these cases, a Modified Finding Support statement can be issued. Furthermore, most homeowners have already paid impact fees (for housing, parks and roads) and will not be charged again.”

Applicants will be able to digitally schedule appointments at the expanded county permit center via their smartphones, but the staff will still be able to address walk-ins.

“Times are changing when it comes to the ways people used to do things,” Wick said. “A few years ago, men would go to a barber Saturday morning and sit in a waiting area until called. In today’s world, you don’t have enough space for everyone, so you need to spread out customer visits over time by scheduling appointments. This is a key part of our customer service approach enabling us to devote more time to those pre-planning their visits with us.”

Wick said details about county’s new Permit Sonoma accelerated service center will be announced in coming weeks.