‘Very good experience’: Streamlined permitting process shows early success for CZU fire home rebuilders

An expedited permit system, and a 40 percent reduction in fees for fire victims, are aimed at easing the path to recovery for owners of homes lost in the blaze that ripped through the Santa Cruz Mountains in August and September. Can county officials keep it up?

For survivors of the CZU Lightning Complex fires looking to rebuild homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains, victories haven’t come easy.

But the early returns on getting permits: Big win. As a veteran contractor who assisted in the first one attained described it, “A very good experience.”

That first re-building permit went to Chuck and Debbie Teixeria for the replacement of their home at 135 Braemoor Drive in Bonny Doon. Theirs was one of more than 900 mountain homes in Santa Cruz County that the August and September blaze decimated.

Chuck Teixeira, with one of the vehicles he lost in the fire.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Teixeiras were the first to sail through Santa Cruz County’s brand-new recovery permit process, emerging with their permit to rebuild in hand just 10 days after submitting a completed application. The couple, along with their contractor and architects, were elated to speed through a dreaded process that commonly takes six months or more to navigate.

“I went into it kind of skeptical, but the (recovery planners) did exactly what they said they were going to do,” said Jesse Nickell, a longtime friend of the Teixeiras who is acting as their contractor for the rebuild. “They were very proactive in making sure you had all the pieces to the puzzle.”

Fire wreckage at the Teixeira house in Bonny Doon.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The expedited permit system, and a 40 percent reduction in fees for fire victims, are aimed at easing the path to recovery for owners of homes lost in the blaze. Now, a key question for county officials going forward is can they keep pace with an unknown, but expected to be voluminous, number of rebuilding efforts to come? And, beyond that, can lessons from the fire reconstruction process be applied to the regular permit cycle?

County supervisors realized early on that the county’s in-house Planning Department, which issues an average of 30 or 40 home-building permits yearly, would take decades to work through the fire recovery workload.

“When the disaster occurred, we called our counterparts around the state,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, whose 3rd District includes hard-hit Bonny Doon. “They recommended hiring an outside permitting firm, so fire victims aren’t in line with everybody else.

“And I’ve asked our planning department to see what we can learn from (the outside firm) so we can speed up our process and improve service for everybody else.”

Chuck Teixeira salvaged wood from around his Bonny Doon home.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Sonoma County, which lost thousands of homes in 2015 and 2017 firestorms, strongly endorsed planning contractors 4LEAF.inc to speed services and spur recovery. The company has reviewed plans and issued thousands of building permits in wildfire-ravaged communities, beginning with the Butte Fire in 2015, and including the Paradise inferno of 2018.

4LEAF’s planners have experience in the public sector, according to company Director of Development Recovery Services Mike Renner. “People with many years in government can go through the red tape and streamline processes,” Renner said. “We meet all regulations and provide good customer service.

“But this work is emotionally charged, it takes people with soft skills. We know that none of the people we serve wanted to build a house — this was not their choice. So we make the process the best we can. You deal with one person with a face and a name, you’re not bounced around to four different departments.”

A night-and-day contrast

In Santa Cruz, 4LEAF’s fire recovery team is ensconced in the county’s former basement cafeteria, managing a parallel permit process independent of county planners. As of March 25, two building permits have been issued, and many more are under review.

Chuck Teixeira — who built a permitted workshop next to his home just four years ago — says the recent recovery permit process was a night-and-day contrast.

“The workshop permit was torture,” Teixeira said. “But this one was phenomenal. (4LEAF planner) Tracie Caton is our hero. We really felt she was on our side.”

The Teixeiras had advantages in the race for the inaugural permit, such as being close friends with their contractor Nickell, whose bona fides include rebuilding much of post-earthquake Santa Cruz as a top executive with Swenson Construction.

The couple decided to rebuild almost immediately, consulting an architect even before the 38-day CZU fire was contained. Their insurance paid up promptly, and their replacement home will be the same size as the one they lost, avoiding the higher level of review triggered by a larger home.

The Teixeiras’ lot is flat, avoiding costly engineering. The septic system survived the flames, avoiding upgrades that cost as much as $100,000 for a single home. And the Braemoor neighborhood is served by wide roads, evading new rules from the state Board of Forestry that will force costly access improvements on many mountain properties.

Asking for accommodations

County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, whose 5th District includes affordable neighborhoods in the San Lorenzo Valley, worries that costly state-mandated upgrades on septic systems and road access will prevent longtime residents from rebuilding.

“We’re doing a good job with the things we have control over,” McPherson said of the recovery effort. “But all we can do about these state-mandated requirements is ask for accommodations” such as accepting multiple turnouts in narrow access roads instead of widening the entire road.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to rebuilding will prove to be the spiraling cost of construction, which industry professionals say has soared beyond $400 per square foot for new construction.

Having a flat, open lot made things easier for the Teixeiras than they might have been otherwise.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Local architects and builders say clients have dissolved into tears upon hearing that their insurance money, or life savings, will build a new home half the size of the old one.

As a result of the fire, rebuilt mountain neighborhoods will likely feature fewer trees, fewer and smaller homes, fire-proof building materials, wider roads and twice as many water storage tanks as before.

Despite their enormous losses, Chuck and Debbie Teixeira say they are among the fortunate, and count their blessings.

  • General
    How should fire victims get started?
    All you need is an address or Assessor’s Parcel Number (APN) to begin the county’s s Pre-Application Screening Service (PAS). PAS provides information and resources to help you determine what will be required and what options are available on the property. PAS can help you verify your parcel data, setbacks, planning requirements, geological and technical requirements, permit history, septic system information, access for fire protection and more.

“There were a lot of tears when our house burned,” Chuck said. “But there were many more as we realized how much love and support was waiting for us out there. People have just been amazing.”

Do you have a story about your experience with rebuilding? We want to hear it. Send us an email at news@lookoutsantacruz.com

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