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Santa Rosa streamlines permit process for solar arrays

By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa is streamlining its permit process for solar arrays following criticism that the additional bureaucracy was time consuming, expensive and unnecessary.

Since the beginning of the year, the Santa Rosa Fire Department has required a separate review of building plans for residential solar arrays and inspection of them once installed. That’s on top of the similar reviews and inspections required by the city’s building department.

But the fire department announced Monday it was giving up that role for most solar projects, eliminating the additional fees it had been charging and speeding processing of solar projects.

“It’s a very important move in the right direction,” said Alison Healy, executive director of Solar Sonoma County, which advocates for the adoption of solar technologies.

Scrapping a separate fire safety review and fee in Santa Rosa will mean a “huge savings in time and finances” for most installers in the largest solar market in the North Bay, Healy said.

In an Aug. 7 Press Democrat story, solar designers and installers complained the new fire department requirements reduce the size of solar systems, increase their cost and make the permit processes more burdensome.

Fire officials said the additional procedures were necessary following changes to the city’s fire code restricting rooftop solar arrays from being mounted where firefighters might need to walk during a fire.

But the department has abandoned its separate review and inspection of standard solar systems, as well as the $270 fee it has imposed since July 1.

“We are at a point in the transition that we believe we can improve our review and inspection efficiency for the city and industry through this change,” Acting Fire Chief Mark McCormick said in a statement.

The media coverage of the issue contributed to the decision to make the shift, McCormick said. Another reason was the success of the department’s education effort, he said. Today the industry is familiar with the requirements and more solar permit applications comply with the new rules.

“We went through a process and we got there,” McCormick said.

City building officials now will perform all plan reviews and inspections of such systems as part of the existing permit process. Commercial projects or residential installations requesting exemptions from the solar setbacks or other provisions in the code still will need to be approved by the fire department. The $270 fee will be charged for those projects, but McCormick said he doesn’t expect that to happen often.

Michael Whitaker, the city’s chief building official, said his plan checkers and building inspectors will be able to perform the additional duties relatively easily in part because the fire department had done a good job educating the solar industry about the new requirements.

He has resisted previous efforts to shift that workload onto his department in part because he knew the reaction from the industry would be negative.

“We certainly didn’t want to bear the brunt of the criticism for the regulation, I know that,” Whitaker said.

To cover the additional cost, the permit fee will increase $21, from $178 to $199, Whitaker said.

But he said installers hoping for greater flexibility from his office will be disappointed.

“Our review is going to be pretty rigid,” Whitaker said.

Plan checkers aren’t going to be waiving the setback requirements or other regulations in the fire code, Whitaker said. That will be up to the fire department.

Some solar installers remained skeptical. Jeff Mathias, co-owner of Synergy Solar & Electrical Systems of Sebastopol, said the move seemed like a “step in the right direction.” But he doubted anyone would seek exemptions to the code from the fire department.

“The other jurisdictions will allow what makes sense, where as far we’ve seen that’s not the case with the City of Santa Rosa,” Mathias said.

The changes are expected to be discussed in detail at a solar permitting forum held Tuesday from 8 a.m. to noon at the North Coast Builders Exchange. A second forum will be held Oct. 25. Both are sponsored by Solar Sonoma County.





7 Responses to “Santa Rosa streamlines permit process for solar arrays”

  1. Social Dis-Ease says:

    If they take two steps forward, and one step back…
    they STILL TOOK A STEP FORWARD!
    Welcome to Fabian Socialism.
    Welcome to Agenda 21.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. srgem says:

    Imposition of the regulations were a way for the FD to raise revenue, plain and simple. Not that they don’t have enough already. Council approved the additional fees in June, I think it was – they justified the expense by stating that they could charge for travel time to do a five minute inspection, and have a minimum time charge for the inspection that is greater than five minutes. Unbelievable. I’m glad it’s been simplified for no other reason other than the FD won’t be charging exorbinant fees for the PV arrays. I feel sorry for the people who had to pay it.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  3. Demosthenes says:

    “End of the Line” and “Regulate this”, please, for the sake of civil discourse, use the same name and don’t try to control the conversation by portraying yourself as multiple voices.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  4. David says:

    @GAJ

    I have 18 panels for a 3.9 KW system. I now pay nothing to PG&E for electricity and my solar payment is equal to what I used to pay PG&E each month.

    My solar panels are mounted on the section of the roof facing South. I have room for 3 more panels on the South roof. If these rules had been in place when I had the system installed 2 years ago, it would have required more panels due to having to place many of them on Western facing part of the roof. The increased costs would probably have resulted in me not having the system installed.

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  5. GAJ says:

    Anyone out there with panels installed that can give us an idea on what their payback is in terms of number of years it will take to recoup the investment?

    When I checked in to it a few years back it was about 15 years.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  6. Regulate This says:

    Solar panels are not cost effective and ugly, but so are the city regulations that the city uses to regulate building permits.

    Less bureaucratic red tape is always a good thing. Santa Rosa has way too many regulation requirements that don’t really accomplish anything except drive costs up and create more building and fire department jobs.

    Too much of it is feel good regulation. This solar panel permit process is exhibit A.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  7. End of the Line says:

    Wow!!! Maybe the City Council is reading what their voters are telling them?

    One small step for the forlorn homeowner and taxpayer; one step for cost cutting and efficiency. Something unknown in the ranks of city government. We will see what happens.

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