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Let the building begin – Tea Fire rekindles home construction

By   /   Saturday, January 31st, 2009  /   Comments Off on Let the building begin – Tea Fire rekindles home construction

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While California will likely see construction decline for the fourth consecutive year in 2009, Santa Barbara contractors may keep humming along. The Nov. 13 Tea Fire, which scorched 1,940 acres and burned 241 homes, has introduced massive, and often high-end, building projects to the county.

A total of 168 residences within the city of Santa Barbara and another 73 homes in the unincorporated area of Montecito were damaged or destroyed in the fire. The majority of Santa Barbara’s affected homeowners are looking to take advantage of the city’s expedited rebuilding process, which could bolster the flailing local construction industry.

“With more than 200 homes lost, there is going to be a good amount of new construction work that needs to get done,” said Brendan Blouin, member services representative with the Santa Barbara Contractors Association. “We would love to see them use local contractors, who in turn will probably use local materials suppliers and local workers. The ripple effect that would result from hiring locally would really help the industry and the Santa Barbara economy.”

The city has issued 126 demolition and debris removal permits to Tea Fire victims, a good indicator that the majority of homeowners are planning to rebuild, said Santa Barbara Community Development Director Paul Casey.

One such victim is Doug Crawford, a longtime Santa Barbara resident who has been working to rebuild the 3,213-square-foot home he lost on Las Alturas Road.

“To best of my knowledge, we’re one of the first ones on the docket,” Crawford said. “Our goal is to be through with the entire process by the end of February. That way we can break ground by March and maybe be living there again by this time next year.”

Just over a month after the blaze had been extinguished, Crawford and his wife met one-on-one with city planning department officials at a pre-application staff appointment, where they discussed basic zoning and design review issues. This early consultation concept review process will allow homeowners to take advantage of free design expertise from volunteer professionals.

“The planning department actually called us to see if we could come in for a preliminary consultation,” Crawford said. “They educated us on the review process, appointed someone to our case and then told us exactly what we needed to do to get on the accelerated schedule.”

The pre-application staff appointment is the first step in the rebuilding process. Applicants have the option of scheduling a consultation review with the Single Family Design Board before they are required to submit their application for “continued concept/preliminary consent review” with the board.

After that, applicants go through the standard building permit application and review process, though Tea Fire victims will be given priority in an effort to expedite the process. Those rebuilding in generally the same location with a similar size and footprint as before will have their applications processed fastest, but it may be a longer wait if the original design is substantially altered.

“We’re building inside the original footprint of the house, so we’re not going to spend as much time in the planning department as, for example, our neighbors, who are going to rebuild on a different place on their lot,” Crawford said. “They’re going to be dealing with the city for a while because of that.”

During meetings with applicants, city representatives are encouraging homeowners to make improvements on their original home designs, particularly in regard to fire prevention, energy efficiency and sustainability issues.

Blouin said that in most cases, destroyed homes will require compliance with new building construction codes and water quality requirements, which will necessitate plan changes anyway.

“Hopefully, that work will go to local contractors,” Blouin said. “Since they’re already in the area, they know how the planning process works here and are definitely more in tune with what happened during the fire. If we see more contractors getting work, then more of their employees will be working too, spending their paychecks locally. It would be a shot in the arm for the industry and the economy.”

National organizations have also injected some funds into the area. Bill Koontz of the Small Business Administration said 27 Tea Fire-related home loans totaling $3.5 million had been issued in Santa Barbara County as of Jan. 26.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency representative said 410 Santa Barbara County residents filed for aid between Nov. 18 and Jan. 20 and that money can also be applied to construction.

“The money being paid out by those organizations right now is based on current building and material costs,” Crawford said. “So if the economy picks up or inflation kicks in, the prices will significantly increase. If not 25 or 50 percent, maybe 100 percent. So we want to get it done as soon as possible. We were promised a fast turnaround and we’ve seen exactly that. Local businesses and government agencies are really working together to help families with homes that were damaged by the fire. And we appreciate it.”

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