By Tennis Wick, Director, Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department
In the aftermath of the fire, Sonoma County faces an unprecedented need for housing and economic development. Permit Sonoma is changing the way we do business to meet this challenge.
Please know this profound loss visited upon our community is not abstract to us. Members of our staff, Planning Commission, and Board of Supervisors lost their homes and have been displaced by the fire. So it’s personal for us, too. We live with the loss daily and appreciate that effective recovery means doing things better and faster.
Here’s the reality. Permit Sonoma has 9,000+ permit applications in the pipeline. We anticipate thousands more applications for reconstruction as folks work out issues around insurance and budget. We must advance pipeline projects quickly to support economic development and to prepare for the onslaught of reconstruction applications coming our way.
We learned from our experience in emergency and local assistance centers that we can achieve great service without having to follow all of our traditional practices. Many of our new measures were under way already and are being brought forward now to improve service.
Our goal is to make the mostly state-mandated permit process as easy and fast as possible for customers. Here’s what’s being incorporated into our business: opening a recovery permit center; delegating some requirements to administrative review; electronic plan checking; plan check review by appointment; expanding third party plan review; and collaborating with design professionals and sister agencies to streamline the process. To measure our success, we will create metrics for our performance and post results.
Staff has established a Streamlining Tools to Ease Permitting (STEP) task force. This advisory committee is comprised of individuals from the County of Sonoma, the City of Santa Rosa, and the design sector, including licensed architects, structural engineers, and civil engineers. STEP is developing tools to enable fire victims to rebuild quickly and efficiently without compromising code compliance and quality. Initial ideas coming out of this group include collaborating on a joint liquefaction study at Coffee Park and geotechnical/geologic studies at hillsides for soil creep.
Permit Sonoma, in partnership with local, state, and federal agencies, will convene a third meeting 28 November in the Permit Sonoma office to streamline bridge repair and reconstruction so fire survivors and crews can gain safe access to properties while protecting the environment.
Under the leadership of the Board of Supervisors, Permit Sonoma has drafted measures to facilitate immediate housing, including: temporary use of RVs and trailers in- and outside of burn areas; year round rentals for campgrounds, retreats, hotels, lodging and seasonal farmworker units; rental of residences to displaced persons on lands under Land Conservation contracts; and prohibiting new vacation rentals.
The City of Santa Rosa, the county and state and federal agencies have formed a task force to construct transitional and long term housing. As Chris Thornberg, one of the state’s leading economic forecasters, observed last week on his visit here, “Sonoma County will bounce back as fast you build housing.” As of this writing, hundreds of units are being brought on-line in hotels, apartments, and temporary units in parks, campgrounds, and soon on lots where reconstruction will happen. Long term we – the nine cities and the county – need to permit and build thousands of units to address a crisis only worsened by the fire. Permit Sonoma has been working with customers to identify 1,500 units within urban growth boundaries where urban services are available. Stay tuned for more progress.
As Permit Sonoma commits to renewal and reconstruction, we invite our customers to share their ideas for improvement. Renewal will require new partnerships in common cause. In this spirit, I take inspiration from Wendell Berry. “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.”
Let us rebuild together.
Tennis Wick, AICP; Director, Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department