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.