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Entrepreneurs grumble about Santa Rosa permit fees



The permit for a new Santa Rosa wine and beer shop cost its owner $14,230, an amount he called “ungodly” last week.

Now the operator of a coffee stand in Rincon Valley is buzzing over what she contends is a similarly ridiculous cost for a permit to serve customers at a

Susan Price, the owner of the new Carnal Coffee, cleans up her tiny coffee shop in the Montecito Shopping Center in Santa Rosa. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

Susan Price, the owner of the new Carnal Coffee, cleans up her tiny coffee shop in the Montecito Shopping Center in Santa Rosa. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)


“I am completely disgusted by the city wanting that much money for a drive-thru,” said Susan Price, who recently opened Carnal Coffee in Montecito Marketplace shopping center.

Santa Rosa officials say they have gone out of their way in recent years to make it easier to open a business in the city, mostly by waiving the need for certain types of businesses to obtain use permits. But small-business owners who find themselves needing such permits often face sticker shock over fees they say stifle entrepreneurship.

The use-permit process often involves extensive staff analyses, including traffic studies in some cases.

Informed she would need to pay up to $15,000 for a permit fee to operate a drive-thru, Price instead is operating it as a walk-up coffee shop, an unusual sight for the middle of a shopping center parking lot.

“I’ve got to explain to people six times a day, if not more than that, why it’s not a drive-thru,” said Price, 35.

The booth was a drive-thru photo shop and then a coffee shop until that closed about six years ago.  The space stood vacant for more than six months, after which the property owner lost the right to lease it as a drive-thru, Price said.

That meant she would need a new permit for a drive-thru. But that would entail an application, a full report by a city planner, a public hearing before the Planning Commission, all with no guarantee the process would result in an approved permit.

“I kind of feel like it’s baloney when it’s already been done,” Price said. “I feel like it’s an excuse to make money.”

Beginning in 2010, in response to the economic downturn, the city relaxed certain zoning rules to make it easier for businesses to get up and running and landlords to fill vacant commercial buildings. Instead of lapsing after six months, most so-called “conditional use permits” became valid for two years from the time the use ceases, such as when a business shuts down.

But that didn’t help Price, whose space lost its permit long before the council relaxed the red tape.

Price said that after first talking to planning staffers, she was under the impression that that no new drive-thrus would be allowed in the city. But as she was preparing to open without a drive-thru, she learned the Dutch Bros. Coffee was opening at the intersection of Mendocino and Pacific avenues under the same use permit — without cost — that had been used by the previous tenant, also a coffee purveyor. The site had been vacant less than two years.

When Price inquired at City Hall about a drive-thru permit, she learned the $15,000 fee would apply to her. “How many cups of coffee is that? I’m not Starbucks!” Price said.

So, she opened her business three weeks ago as a walk-up venue, placing several small planters in the former drive-thru lanes to create a little outdoor café.

She’s optimistic about the business’ prospects, but knows she’s missing the chance to serve those who appreciate the convenience of a drive-thru, particularly mothers with young children or those uninterested in braving inclement weather.

Planner Noah Housh noted that city staff waived several zoning requirements in order to help Price get established. These include allowing her the least expensive process to get a sign permit and waiving any review of her patio.

“I’d say we’re doing everything we can to accommodate her,” Housh said.

Chuck Regalia, director of the Community Development Department, said the city currently is updating its fee schedule. The last time that happened was in 2004, when development fees rose sharply as building activity boomed.

When the council streamlined the permit process in 2010 as an economic incentive to business, it didn’t include alcohol sales or drive-thrus as businesses that no longer required conditional use permits, Regalia said.

The pending study will show the city’s permit fees don’t cover its costs. If permit fees were lowered, more of the department’s funding would have to come from the city’s general fund, potentially impacting other city services, he said.

Price claims such permits in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County run about $3,500, a figure she said she could live with.

“I understand that these things cost money,” she said. “I’m willing to do what is reasonable.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @citybeater.

10 Responses to “Entrepreneurs grumble about Santa Rosa permit fees”

  1. R.B. Fish says:

    You are exactly correct New Wave Right. These fees including other outrageous fees are calculated to augment public salary and pension benfits. They are blindly clueless because they don’t care how capitialism works. Political corruption is the name of the game not wealth creation through entrepenurship, nor wealth accumulation through through good management and product service and wealth protection to keep the great wheels going. Their mindset is about themselves including finding and distributing taxpapyer money to themselves.

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  2. Smelling the Coffee said: “Then move your coffee kiosk into the unincorporated area where the traffic that will be near your kiosk is about 10% of what it is where it’s situated now, and you’ll see why.”

    Wrong. That is how purchasing land on the free market works–you buy at a price that another person will sell for. A MANDATORY GOVERNMENT PERMIT is not the same thing as an honest and capitalistic trade of property between citizens.

    These permits are NOT an artifact of the open market. They’re an artifact of the mental sickness of the left thinking that people must be “permitted” to do everything and anything in this country.

    Just think of the word itself–a “permit.” Why should one have to pay $15,000 to be “permitted” to open a coffee shop?

    How much do you think we should be charged to be “permitted” to vote? This is just another democrat poll tax aimed at keeping people down, suppressing business, and feeding the government machine.

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  3. Smelling The Coffee says:

    “Price claims such permits in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County run about $3,500, a figure she said she could live with.”

    Then move your coffee kiosk into the unincorporated area where the traffic that will be near your kiosk is about 10% of what it is where it’s situated now, and you’ll see why. That statement is equivalent to “It’s so much cheaper to live in the valley instead of beachfront in Southern California.” If it’s not obvious why that is, you aren’t going to be a very successful entrepeneur!

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  4. Snarky says:

    And why do public employees get to retire a full 17 years before the rest of us can claim social security ?

    THEY retire at age 50 with immediate cash pensions and medical.

    We, the mere public, have to wait until age 67 for retirement.

    Maybe thats why they need $15,000 for a little permit ?

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  5. bear says:

    It’s called paying for necessary services that you receive from the public through policies that are determined by the City Council. The goal is to recover tax dollars.

    If you don’t believe in land use controls, please consult the folks in West, TX.

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  6. Robert says:

    It’s called WORD. They print out the last traffic study, change the address and charge $15k. I know people at the City who brag about how simple it is. Especially in this case. Anyone who thinks you need a traffic study to sell a cup of coffee at a drive thru is a complete idiot. Only a tax and spender loves this scum. Yes, they are scum, but they can live with it, so who cares?

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  7. Bill in Fville says:

    It’s called legalized extortion. Why they have this 2 yr rule is just a handy way for bureaucrats to extract more dollars out of the population/individual. I’m positive they could find a way to reduce the fee if an attorney got involved, another legal extortionist.

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  8. Grapevines says:

    Just the city following the mold established by the State. Tax and squeeze every citizen and business as much as you can; and then claim that your not doing that.

    Oh and be sure to waste most of the funds you take in so you don’t actually provide services to the public.

    Schools, roads, lighting, safety??? Those are not needed as much as a high speed train to nowhere.

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  9. Reality Check says:

    The saddest, and most believable, part of this story is not the cost of the permit ($15,000) to open a drive-thru coffee kiosk, but that is doesn’t cover staff costs to process the application.

    Our bureaucracy now costs more than many small business startups can afford. We are at risk of closing the door on the opportunity that was once one of America’s crowning achievements.

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  10. GAJ says:

    Completely ridiculous and predictable.

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