Restore the Community
A Disaster Recovery Resource Specifically for Planning Departments
The smoke clears or the shaking stops and then planning departments kick into high gear and having programs with specific tools in place can help the process of restoring the community go more smoothly, so healing can begin. Rincon Consultants provides some tools just for planners and planning managers, all of which can be scaled for size and budget, to address the planning-specific challenges for restoring a healthy, vibrant, vital community.
For handy reference, this article includes hyperlinks to websites, ordinances, and forms that serve as examples when crafting recovery tools for your community. The links are called out in blue and open in a new page when clicked.
—Vince Nicoletti, Deputy Director Planning and Development Services, San Diego County
The needs of each planning department will determine the best course of action to address key recovery issues. City of Thousand Oaks City Manager Drew Powers recommends a proactive approach that involves thinking about exactly what your community needs. Get creative when disaster hits and it can facilitate recovery.
As soon as damage reports start to roll in from the 2017 Thomas Fire, consider what might be needed in advance of requests. Taking a cue from the Sonoma County and the City of Santa Rosa, Community Development Director for the City of Ventura, Jeff Lambert, set up a separate webpage to address the rebuild process. It includes resources to facilitate the permitting process, including where to call, approvals needed, and details about standard requirements. The City adopted a rebuild overlay zone ordinance just a couple of months after the fire that facilitates the permit process. These include some of the following provisions:
- Legal nonconforming structures established as of the date when the emergency was declared could receive expedited review if they were constructed or repaired exactly as they had been before they were damaged or destroyed
- Some changes to the original design could be included in the new plans only if they met the existing general plan requirements and zoning codes and if owners of adjacent properties sign off on the modifications
- Certain regulations about building on the hillside that were in place after the destroyed home was originally build would be waived with the provision that the Community Development Director would verify the preexisting height and that that height would not be exceeded
While property owners may think primarily of getting on with the business of rebuilding their homes, they may need long-term temporary housing. The City of Ventura offered one solution: extend the length of time for permits for RVs for residential use on fire-affected sites to 18 months, with the possibility of extending the permit for another 18 months if necessary, to allow homeowners to live on their land, attach to utilities, and be present for the rebuild process.
Erin Morris, Code Enforcement and Planning Manager for the City of Napa, argues for the importance of anticipating needs and crafting ordinances in advance that can be approved before or immediately after to address key topics like overtime reimbursement and other areas that might be addressed by FEMA funding. Her experience working on the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan in the City of Santa Rosa made clear that federal relief might be waived or delayed if emergency ordinances are not approved and in-place before the disaster hits. While this may not be appropriate for every area, as with temporary occupancy and on-site storage permits, having ordinances drafted to address the details of recovery will facilitate the disbursement of relief funds.
In the City of Ventura, the Community Development department worked with temporary contract planners to prepare packets with permits, zoning requirements, existing entitlements, and site plans in advance of homeowner requests. If possible, this resource is best delivered digitally, saving time for both planning staff and property owners, for whom email may be the best form of transmission when mail may not reach them at a home address for some time after a disaster. In San Diego County, Deputy Director Planning and Development Services, Vince Nicoletti notes that the County found it useful to assign an individual planner to each affected site. This focused attention facilitated the process and aided communication and coordination during some of the most damaging fires in state history.
Nicoletti emphasized preparing contact lists with volunteer organizations and business partners that are updated frequently, at least annually, but certainly anytime information comes in that personnel have changed. A comprehensive list includes services debris removal contractors, staff cross-trained for field inspections, and utilities providers. Relief organizations should be included in the loop on this kind of training so they know who to contact for logistics, where to send people who are ready to help with matters as small as feeding animals to those as large as getting families into shelters. The Sonoma County Volunteer Center is an example of one form of hub for volunteers and nonprofits in the county. Partnering with organizations like this during training efforts can smooth the path for action when the need arises. Volunteers can also be instrumental in disseminating information by word of mouth when normal communication systems break down during power outages or if wireless facilities become disabled.
Involving other jurisdictions in the training helps the team vet flaws in the approach, anticipate unfamiliar situations, and adapt the tools for the specific needs of rural, suburban, and urban regions. Organization charts that show the flow of responsibility and who to ask for information or equipment, from tractors to door keys, makes reaching out to those in the know much easier. Training can also work to incorporate local residential and business communities and help neighborhoods form support networks that distribute accurate information about resources and processes for recovery
In Ventura, power was out for several days and internet access less than reliable. Scrambling to get the word out during the Thomas fire, Lambert used local radio and online sources to get information to residents about resources and plans for recovery. At Ventura County, Chris Stephens, Director of Resource Management Agency, notes that the numerous and consistent town-hall style meetings the County held with affected property owners were particularly effective in getting information out clearly, concisely, and in a timely manner. Of particular concern was what would be done with debris when it was removed. Inter-jurisdictional communication between City and County staff (who happen to share a facility on the east side of Ventura) alleviated the potential for confusion over specifics like where to take debris and timeframes for when construction could begin.
- Build an organization chart before the event with names and contact information for inter-agency and departmental staff and volunteers and keep it updated
- Invite stakeholders across the jurisdiction along with members of disaster response volunteer groups to participate in regular training with the planning department as a way to network and exchange ideas, including architects, builders, contractors, and engineers
- Organize regular training sessions on a range of specific topics related to disaster preparation and response to develop relationships outside the planning division
- Reach out to communities with experience handling similar disasters to discover their best practices and lessons learned
Whatever direction makes sense for your community, adapting to intra-departmental and inter-jurisdictional collaboration to your department’s needs will increase capacities over going it alone.