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The Case for Grandfathering-in Permit Fees

Zero, Zip, None. That’s how much fire victims should pay in permit fees to rebuild. In fact, I’ll take it further. Not only should the County not charge permit fees, but they should be discussing incentives and rebates to offer homeowners willing to stay and slug it out during the rebuilding process.

Why? Because our homes, whether they were built five, twenty five or even fifty years ago, have already been charged a permit fee for the right to build in Sonoma County. That the County is even considering “recharging" building permit fees is tantamount to double dipping. And that’s what they are doing: “recharging" a fee that’s already been paid. Fees that should be grandfathered in.

Make 'em Pay

Yes, for developers who have chosen to create a new subdivision - charge permit fees. For people building their new dream home on a previously undeveloped lot, charge permit fees. For the couple proposing a flashy kitchen remodel in their existing home, charge permit fees. These people have a choice and have decided to enter into the building process. Presumably, they’re willing and able to pay appropriate fees to get into the game...

…but for those of us who lost a home in the fire and must rebuild - this was not our choice. We are just trying to recreate what we lost, and that's not a justifiable trigger for the assessment of new fees, especially when those fees have already been paid.

The County needs to start thinking like an entrepreneur who needs to save customers to create future wealth, not like a government looking for ways to tax, charge and penalize.

We’re simply trying to rebuild against insurmountable odds. Our challenge to rebuild is the County’s challenge too, to compel us to stay, pay taxes and contribute to our community. If fees are going to flow in any direction, it should be from the County to victims to help compensate for our tremendous financial loss and as incentive for us to stay.

We've Seen This Movie - And It Doesn't End Well

My husband and I lost a home two years ago in the Valley Fire. Only 5 of our 35 neighbors have rebuilt. The rest of us are gone as are the benefits we brought to that area. Lake County lost us as “customers” because they continued on a “business as usual” pretext. Our tax dollars, our volunteer hours, our small businesses? They’ve relocated. All Lake County saw were tail lights getting smaller on the horizon.

Based on the absurdity of the two-page printout titled “Use of Travel Trailers & Recreational Vehicles for Sonoma Fire Victims,” I can’t foresee trying to recreate the home we lost here either.

If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the “streamlined” process our County developed for RVs. Saturday Night Live couldn’t make this up for its most absurd comedy skit.

To put an RV on my lot, I’d have to submit a note to the County that says I give myself permission to do so. I’d have to submit plumbing and electrical diagrams in triplicate, a site plan, a vehicle description, model and size – and I'd have to file a “septic finding report.”

Even if my septic system worked the day before the fire, I’d have to find and pay a certified septic expert to unearth and inspect my system and then pay the County to review that inspection by the certified expert. But hey, that’s only another $142 dollars and another few days of paper chasing.

Among the long list of permit fees is a “technology enhancement fee” - whatever that means, an “engineering office clearance fee” and of course, the “temporary structure fee.” In short, 7 permit fee categories, 2 inspections, and 7 more submittal requirements. Total cost? Probably $600 to over $1,000. No one knows for sure, because some line-item County fees are open ended. To park a trailer.

Now, translate that process into actually rebuilding a house in Sonoma where proposed permit fees could range from $15K to $80K, and you can see that it may be impossible for many to rebuild. These permit fees need to be grandfathered in.

Complicated requirements and expensive fees make rebuilding too hard. This is how a view of receding taillights moving quickly away from City Hall gets started and how neighborhoods that were once vibrant become empty, taking with them families, businesses and tax revenue.

Get Out of the Box

If the County wants dollars, it would be better to invest time and energy into its most precious commodity - people. Invest in those of us willing to rebuild. Look at us as an entrepreneur would, as customers, as the future. Treat us right, even "giving upfront" to keep us coming back. That’s what responsible and smart businesses do, and it’s often the opposite of what government does. It’s time for Sonoma County to think outside the box about charging any permit fees whatsoever and to take a practical look at its building requirements.

Nonsense regulations that restrict average people from pursuing ordinary dreams – like owning a business and a home – need to go away. You shouldn’t have to be a millionaire to sell a hamburger in Santa Rosa, and you shouldn’t have to be a genius to rebuild a home. And certainly, you shouldn’t have pay building fees that have already been paid to rebuild your home after a fire that's not your fault.

If the County does not waive these fees, many homes will not be rebuilt. And the County will miss out in the long term on collecting higher property taxes from fully developed properties. Collecting permit fees now is short term thinking, and the County needs to take a long term view for keeping fire victims and tax dollars in the County. Permit fees should be grandfathered in and the County should not be double-dipping on the back of fire victims.

I know our local government leaders share the heartbreak of our collective loss, and I don’t envy the task they face. But I’m speaking from experience, as a two-time fire victim and as an entrepreneur of twenty-plus years: Sonoma, you’re going to have to get a lot better, a lot faster, or the biggest traffic jam Santa Rosa’s ever seen will be from victims like me heading out of town.

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