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In 2017, county staff estimated the number of “unpermitted structures in Humboldt County runs into the thousands” in a Board of Supervisors staff report.

“Fear of county staff presence on rural properties and a general distrust of government have prevented many landowners from applying for and obtaining the necessary permits,” according to the staff report for the Oct. 24, 2017, Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting.

At that meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved the Safe Homes program, which would allow property owners to get unpermitted structures, additions, remodels, wells, and wastewater systems permitted without having to pay fines for a five-year period ending in 2022. They still have to pay regular permit fees.

However, it’s hard to say if the program is working in getting structures permitted.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Environmental Health, which handles the wells and wastewater systems, hasn’t had any requests for fee waivers under the Safe Homes program, the department’s spokesperson Christine Messinger wrote in an email.

Delilah Moxon, administrative services manager with the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department, said there is no separate process for permits receiving fee and fine waivers, so it’s hard to say how many have gone through the process.

Anecdotally, Humboldt County Planning Department staff said people had been taken advantage of the program, but Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford did not respond to multiple requests from the Times-Standard for comment over a period of a week and a half.

The program has come up frequently at Humboldt County Board of Supervisors 2nd District candidate forums with most of the candidates — incumbent Estelle Fennell; Michelle Bushnell, of the Southern Humboldt Chamber of Commerce; and Michael McKaskle, of the Redway Community Services District — saying they support the program and wouldn’t let it sunset.

“I think that it’s working and taking a little slower than we would like,” Fennell said at a candidate forum in Redway earlier this month. “People were very weary about it, but people are coming in.”

The more people who participate in the program, the more likely other people are to see it work and participate themselves, Fennell said.

Fennell pointed out an improvement could be applying building codes that were in place when the structure was built rather than the ones currently in place. However, the county’s chief building official at the time the program was approved, Todd Sobolik, said at the 2017 board of supervisors meeting that the county can’t retroactively apply older codes through the program.

The Safe Homes program does include two permit processes — the standard building permit process and the alternative owner builder permit process for structures in more rural areas. The latter permits only require structures to meet plumbing, mechanical and electrical requirements

Sobolik told the board that Mendocino County was able to work with the California Energy Commission to apply energy codes from when the structures were built rather than the current energy requirements, which he said get a lot stricter every year.

“The energy code is the biggest issue and always has been,” Sobolik said.

Hydesville resident Rick French said he didn’t know enough about the program to comment, while entrepreneur Sean DeVries was the only one to come out against it to cheers from the audience.

“If people want to live in a home that’s not up to code compliance, as long as they’re not putting other people at risk, I’m OK with that,” DeVries said. “That’s their choice, and if they want to make adult decisions and have adult consequences, I think it’s up to them.”

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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