Q&A: County office director for response, recovery and resilience talks about CZU rebuilding process
A year after the CZU Lightning Complex fires, many families in Santa Cruz are still awaiting county approval 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 the future of the rebuilding process will be easier. Following this week’s unanimous decision by the County Oversight Board to move forward with the revised CZU Reconstruction Directive, Reid said he wanted to do more outreach to determine how the county can improve authorization and reconstruction process.
Here are some glimpses of Reid’s conversation with Lookout. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Can you describe the timeline of the creation of the OR3 office and what were its goals for families from the beginning?
The office was established in November and December 2020, modeled after a recovery and resilience office in Sonoma County. We created the office specifically to support and coordinate our recovery efforts, as well as our ongoing emergency response and services, and to look further towards resilience to climate change.
I joined in mid-January as a Recovery and Resilience Analyst, and I was recently promoted to Director. I mainly worked with families of firefighters and coordinated things on the county side. What it looks like, looking outward to the community, is facilitating community meetings and community conversations, usually neighborhood-wide, to educate people on the processes.
What were some of the initial concerns of families of firefighters that your office sought to resolve?
Originally it was about the debris removal process – what the process looks like, what to expect and working with our environmental health team. Throughout early June, that was the recovery goal for most firefighter families: when will my home site be cleared of debris, when will I get my fire clearance and clearance , and what are the next steps for reconstruction?
Even though it has been a year since the fire was put out, in those first six months most people couldn’t continue to explore the rebuilding process because they needed to clean their homes.
What happened to the rebuilding process after these permissions?
Since May or June, we have been working to resolve some of the complexities of reconstruction in Santa Cruz County. Obviously, the most important thing for much of our community is that we live in a geologically complex environment, subject to many hazards: earthquakes, floods, landslides, debris flows. For the members of our mountain community, we mainly focused on how to focus on their reconstruction, keeping them safe and housing them as quickly as possible.
We hope that with the action of the supervisory board on Tuesday, according to community feedback, we can have another path of reconstruction for those who choose to use it, which removes the geological requirements of the county code. Not everyone needs another path, but there is this percentage of people who are stranded or have waited for a disaster exemption process. Frankly, we didn’t have these tools in our regulatory toolbox before the fires, so we’ve been building this new system over the last few months, most recently landing on the CZU Reconstruction Directive.
Can you develop the county contract with 4Leaf?
To meet the reconstruction needs of firefighting families, we needed a fully independent permit review process. This model was taken from Paradise in Butte County and Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, where they set up a parallel process, but fully focused on the survivors of the fires, the permit review and the d ‘approval.
A lot of people say we signed on and gave 4Leaf $ 6 million to make this process work. While the contract was for a “not to exceed” amount within that $ 6 million range, we pay them monthly for their services, and their services are offset by the reduced license fees for the community.
Their role is the review and approval of permits, the review and approval of permits and construction inspections. They have been reviewing applications and issuing building permits for all this time, but they cannot meet the regulatory issues of Chapter 16.10. [That is part of the county code that specifies geologic and flood ordinance requirements for building permits.] They were not hampered in this work, but some community members are slow to complete the customs clearance process. We expect that those who were waiting will get more of their three clearances soon.
Can you expand on the CZU Reconstruction Directive and the original plans put into its creation?
The direction of the council was to find a way to exempt post-fire reconstructions from Chapter 16.10, which exists to ensure the safety of people when they develop new properties or redevelop existing properties. But we recognized the challenges this imposed – in terms of cost and time – on our rebuilding community.
Lookout checks the recovery effort
In a multi-part series, we speak to the people who were hit hardest by Nature’s Wrath last August.
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 thought was important to do was include the alliance. When you assess the risks of your property, we always need a document on your title showing that you have done what you can to resolve these issues. This has been common practice for about 25 years, where people who obtain a geological report and a building permit must register this document.
What we didn’t do well on September 14 was that the sample pledge language was potentially detrimental to people for loans, insurability, and property value because it was broad, vague. and far-reaching. What we are doing now is making the directive more compliant and consistent with what we have done over the past 25 years without harming those owners. We have never had these issues with our existing Standard of Practice, and we want to closely mirror that existing Standard of Practice with this New Covenant of Rebuilding.
Did your office take these issues of loan, insurability and property value into account when you first drafted the undertaking?
We had heard comments on what the alliance needed to accomplish internally, and had had conversations with people about the requirements. We certainly haven’t done enough research – it’s important to recognize that we’re all trying to navigate this process, and I think the feedback from the community and the professional industry has helped light up the conversation.
From a government and response perspective, I think it’s okay to recognize that we don’t do things right the first time, all the time. The feedback helped us recalibrate and adjust, and I think it’s a healthy process. I wish this process would go faster, certainly for all of our firefighter families. The results of the Atkins study are an important part of the conversation, and I wish we had asked the Community Foundation to fund this study earlier – but here we are. I unfortunately cannot go back in time to adjust this.
Some firefighting families asked for more time to study the revised alliance at Tuesday’s meeting, but the board still voted unanimously on the matter. How does your office meet these community needs, while keeping a specific timeline for the rebuilding and permitting process?
It was the will of the board as to how it wanted to proceed, and our job as staff was to respond to that directive. Management was clear that continuing the conversation and community engagement about the language of the final covenant was part of our process. I think the intention of the council was to disembark people, take them through the customs clearance process and move on.
Our goal, with the planning department and OR3, is to have a community meeting in the next week or two to present an example of alliance language for people to review. We also want to do additional research on existing practices and confirm more concretely that owners with existing title documents have not been negatively impacted. We also need to develop clarifications in the FAQ on how to implement the Rebuild directive and how the Atkins study can be used.
We aim to involve people in the education and clarification of the process. If there is additional feedback from the community, we will have the leadership of the board to meet people’s needs where possible.