Dave Reid, the director of the Santa Cruz County Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Q&A: Director of county office of response, recovery and resilience talks about the CZU rebuilding process

Dave Reid is in charge of making the process of rebuilding as easy as possible for those who lost their homes in the wake of the CZU fire. The director of the Santa Cruz County Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience said he understands families’ frustrations and is looking for ways to help.

A year after the CZU Lightning Complex fires, many Santa Cruz families are still awaiting approval from the county to rebuild their homes. The county created the Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience late last year to help speed up the process — but some fire survivors believe the office hasn’t done enough.

Director Dave Reid understands the frustrations, and hopes that the future of the rebuilding process is smoother. Following this week’s unanimous decision by the county’s board of supervisors to move forward with the revised CZU Rebuild Directive, Reid said he wants to do more outreach to determine how the county can make the permitting and rebuilding processes better.

Here are some insights from Reid’s conversation with Lookout. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Can you describe the timeline of the OR3 office’s creation, and what its goals for families were from the beginning?

The office was created in November and December 2020, modeled after a recovery and resilience office in Sonoma County. We formed the office specifically to support and coordinate our recovery efforts, as well as our ongoing emergency response and services, and to look further out toward climate change resilience.

I joined in mid-January as a recovery and resilience analyst, and was recently promoted to the director. I’ve been primarily working with fire families and coordinating on the county side of things. What that looks like, outward facing to the community, is facilitating community meetings and community conversations, typically on a neighborhood scale, to educate folks on the processes.

What were some of the original concerns from fire families that your office aimed to address?

Originally, it was on the debris removal process — what does the process look like, what should you expect, and working with our environmental health team. All the way through early June, that was the recovery focus for most fire families: When is my home site going to be cleared of debris, when will I get my fire signoff and clearance, and what are the next steps for rebuilding?

Even though it’s been a year since the fire was put out, in those first six months, most people couldn’t proceed with exploring the rebuilding process because they needed to get their homes cleared.

What has been happening with the rebuilding process following those clearances?

Since May or June, we’ve aimed to address some complexities of rebuilding in Santa Cruz County. Obviously, the biggest one for much of our community is that we live in a geologically complex environment, subject to lots of hazards: earthquakes, floods, landslides, debris flow. For our mountain community members, we’ve mainly focused on how to focus on their rebuild, keep them safe and get them housed as quickly as possible.

We hope with the board of supervisors’ action on Tuesday, in line with community feedback, we can have an alternate path to rebuilding for folks who choose to use it, that removes the county code’s geologic requirements. Not everyone needs an alternate path — but there are this percentage of folks who have been stuck or have waited for a disaster exemption process. Candidly, we didn’t have those tools in our regulatory toolbox before the fires, so we’ve been creating that new system over the last few months, landing more recently on the CZU Rebuild Directive.

Can you expand on the county contract with 4Leaf?

To meet the needs of fire families in rebuilding, we needed a wholly independent permit review process. That model was taken from Paradise in Butte County and Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, where they set up a parallel, but wholly focused on fire survivors, permit review and approval process.

A lot of folks say we signed and gave $6 million to 4Leaf to operate this process. While the contract was a “not-to-exceed” dollar amount in that $6 million range, we are paying them monthly for their services, and their services are being offset by the reduced permit fees for the community.

Their role is clearance review and approval, permit review and approval and construction inspections. They’ve been reviewing applications and issuing building permits this whole time, but they cannot address the regulatory questions of Chapter 16.10. [That is part of the county code that specifies geologic and flood ordinance requirements for building permits.] They haven’t been impeded in that work, but some community members are delayed in completing the clearance process. We expect those folks that have been waiting will get more of their three clearances soon.

Can you expand on the CZU Rebuild Directive, and the original plans put into its creation?

The direction from the board was to come up with a way to exempt fire rebuilds from Chapter 16.10, which exists to keep people safe when they develop new properties or redevelop existing properties. But we recognized the hardship that was placing — in both cost and time — on our rebuild community.

Over the summer, with the Atkins study, we found a way to remove the regulatory hurdle and ensure these properties could be built safely. Part of what we felt important to do was to include the covenant. When you assess the risks of your property, we still require a document on your title, showing that you’ve done what you can to address these issues. That’s been the standard practice for about 25 years, where people who get a geologic report and a building permit have to record that document.

What we did not do well on Sept. 14 was that the sample covenant language was potentially detrimental to folks for lending, insurability and property value, because it was broad, vague and far-reaching. What we’re doing now is bringing the directive more in line and consistent with what we’ve done over the past 25 years with no harm to those property owners. We’ve never had those issues with our existing standard of practice, and we want to closely mirror that existing standard of practice with this new rebuild covenant.

Did your office take those issues of lending, insurability and property value into account when you were first drafting the covenant?

We had heard feedback about what the covenant needed to accomplish internally, and I had been in conversations with people about the requirements. We definitely didn’t do enough research — it’s important to recognize that we’re all trying to navigate this process, and I think the community’s and professional industry’s feedback helped inform the conversation.

From a government and response standpoint, I think it’s OK to recognize that we don’t get things right the first time, all the time. The feedback helped us recalibrate and adjust, and I think that’s a healthy process. I wish this process happened faster, certainly for all of our fire families. The Atkins study findings are an important part of the conversation, and I wish we had asked the Community Foundation to fund that study sooner — but we are where we are. I can’t go back in time, unfortunately, to adjust that.

Some fire families asked for more time to study the revised covenant at Tuesday’s meeting, but the board still voted unanimously on the item. How is your office addressing those community needs, while still adhering to a specific time frame for the rebuilding and permitting process?

It was the board’s will for how they wanted to proceed, and our job as staff to respond to that direction. The direction was clear that further community conversation and engagement about the final covenant language was part of our process. I think what the board intended was to land people, get them through the clearance process, and move forward.

Our goal, with the planning department and OR3, is to have a community meeting in the next week or two to present sample covenant language for folks to review. We also want to do additional research on the existing practices and confirm more concretely that property owners with the existing documents on title have not been negatively impacted. We also need to build out FAQ clarifications on implementing the Rebuild Directive and how the Atkins study can be used.

We’re aiming to engage folks in the education and clarification of the process. If there’s additional community feedback, we’ll have the direction of the board to address folks’ needs to the greatest extent possible.