(TNS) - The past week has brought some encouraging news to Sonoma County in terms of cleanup and recovery efforts.
Mark Ghilarducci, head of the state’s Office of Emergency Services, drew a round of applause during a public forum Saturday at Santa Rosa High School when he announced that debris removal in Santa Rosa’s burned Coffey Park would be finished within two weeks. The rest of lots in Sonoma County would be cleared by the end of February, he said.
The more than 200 people in attendance, many of whom lost houses in the October fires, also responded favorably when David Guhin, Santa Rosa’s assistant city manager and head of planning and economic development, announced that under the city’s expedited permitting process, plans for building homes would be approved within five business days and rechecks would be done in three.
Meanwhile, Guhin also announced that the city issued its fourth building permit on Friday, yet another sign that the reconstruction is indeed happening. “Things are moving through, and we’re starting to see some action,” Guhin said.
Meanwhile, the county also will be opening a new consolidated planning and permitting center to help fast track the rebuilding of homes lost in the fires. (Those with questions are encouraged to call the Sonoma County Rebuild Hotline at 707-565-1788.)
These signs of progress are encouraging. But many questions and unknowns remain.
For example, many homeowners were on hand at the forum Saturday wanting answers to why their properties were still in limbo. In many cases, burned sites had been cleared but had yet to be given the green light to allow owners to work with the county to rebuild. Still others wanted to clear up confusion about the removal of trees, the changes that will be required under new building codes and how much the county plans to charge in fees.
County officials did themselves no favors when they announced shortly after the firestorm that the county would be waiving permit fees for the reconstruction of homes that had been destroyed. They have since had to rescind that promise as they had inadvertently put themselves at risk of losing reimbursement dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Tennis Wick, the director of Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department, told the crowd on Saturday that the fees will be significantly reduced instead. During a meeting with the Editorial Board on Wednesday, Supervisor James Gore said the fees would be closer to around $5,000, similar to what the city will be charging.
Neither the county nor the city plan to have owners of burned houses pay impact fees, which are generally charged to cover the added burdens of new development on roads, parks, sewers and other public services.
That makes sense given that owners, ostensibly, already paid those fees when the homes were built the first time. But it’s not clear what the overall impacts of the reduced fee schedule will be on a county budget that’s already expected to take a major $21 million hit due to declining property tax income and increased costs for the firefighting and debris-removal efforts.
Local governments are expected to get some help from the state and possibly the federal government with some of these costs. But how much is unclear.
Sonoma County is certainly showing signs of progress. But, in many ways, its journey to recovery is still only beginning.
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