Many Still Have Questions as City and County Host Rebuilding Meeting

Feb 20, 2018

Big crowd turns out for community meeting on fire rebuilding at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa February 15, 2018
Credit Stacey Dennick

The mood was serious with an undertone of frustration at the latest Rebuilding Community Meeting on Thursday, February 15 in Santa Rosa. About 300 people gathered, pen and paper in hand, to hear presentations on the labyrinth of fees and permits required for rebuilding after last October’s devastating wildfires.

“My experience with the insurance company has been very disheartening,” said former Coffey Meadow subdivision resident Lonny, who didn’t want to give his surname. “That’s why I’m here, to educate myself so I know what to ask and how to ask for it.”

Col. Eric McFadden of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that they had completed about 76 percent of the debris removal from Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

Tennis Wick, the director of Permit Sonoma, promoted the Resiliency Permit Center, a new office that opened on February 13. Dedicated solely to helping the approximately 3,000 homeowners who lost their residences last year, the center is located at 2550 Ventura Avenue in Santa Rosa, adjacent to the original Permit Sonoma offices. Wick explained that to provide further assistance, rebuild permit fees have been reduced by 35-40 percent and processing times have been expedited. Applicants can expect a response within five business days for plan checks, and three business days for rechecks. Electronic plan checks are not only accepted, but preferred.

“We’re encouraging electronic plan check to facilitate the speed of approvals,” said Wick. “Which will please most of your designers.”

Pre-application screenings, or PAS, were also recommended for all fire loss families, regardless of how close they were to rebuilding. PAS are used to verify parcel data, setback and zoning requirements, assessor data and utility connections. During the PAS, experts can answer septic and well questions. A PAS helps fire victims assemble existing records to get all the necessary information they will need when they submit their application for approval, speeding up the process considerably.

“It’s never too early to come see us for your pre-application meeting,” said Wick.

Those with property within the city of Santa Rosa will need to go to the city permit center located at City Hall. Additional staff have been hired to help with the case load for those who want to rebuild.

Karen Tang, who lost her home in Holly Park Estates, attended the meeting to find out about permits, and for information on how to select a contractor. “I have my plans, and I’m going to start rebuilding my home probably in spring,” said Tang.

Rick Lopes, Chief of Public Affairs with Contractor’s License Board, started his presentation with a warning about crooks who pose as licensed contractors. “Don’t let your guard down. Be wary of anyone who asks for a lot of money up front. Contractors can only charge 10 percent or $1,000 up front, whichever is less,” said Lopes. He urged attendees to thoroughly vet prospective contractors, beginning with making sure that the contractor is licensed through the Contractor’s State License Board.

In order to help lessen the financial strain of rebuilding, the City of Santa Rosa has waived fees for demolition, park and road impact. Residents are allowed to live in temporary housing units, such as RVs or tiny homes on their properties while rebuilding with the purchase of an $83 permit. Fees for second units of 750 square feet or less have been lowered to encourage the building of more second units. Second units may also be completed first.

“We’re trying to make it as cheap and as easy as possible to get that trailer or whatever unit you’re going to use for that transitional housing,” said Wick. “It’s really gratifying to me, when I go through the fire area to see not only the landscaping coming back, but trailers popping up on properties.”

A lot of older homes were destroyed, but must be rebuilt to current codes. One question, submitted via index card, asked the city to publish a list of the twenty or so universal code upgrades since 1970 for insurance purposes. Another person asked if their home could be rebuilt in the original footprint, even though it will not be compliant with current setback requirements. The answer to both questions was yes.

A small bit of counterpoint to the devastation of losing one’s home is the opportunity to make changes in the replacement home’s design. Property owners do not have to stick to the original footprint of their house. There were a number of questions about the rules and fees associated with additions and modifications.

Former Coffey Park resident Melinda Bachman wants to enlarge a bathroom in her rebuilt home, which will bring one wall even with a previously added porch.

“I have to learn a whole new language,” says Bachman. “Each time I come to a meeting I leave with more questions than I started with. But it helps.”

Representatives from FEMA, The Army Corps of Engineers, The City of Santa Rosa, The County of Sonoma and Contractors State License Board were available for individual questions after the public question and answer session.