Slow pace of permits helps delay construction of new homes in Santa Cruz County

Carolyn Burke, left, is the assistant director of community development and infrastructure for Santa Cruz County. She reviews building plans with Santa Cruz County Senior Planner Stephanie Hansen. (Grace Stetson — Santa Cruz Local)

SANTA CRUZ >> A new state dashboard that tracks the time it takes to obtain housing permits shows longer wait times for permits in some areas of Santa Cruz County compared to the state average.

The data is beginning to quantify what builders have long known about the often time-consuming process of building homes in Santa Cruz County. It also provides comparisons of planning staff workloads and the city and county’s progress toward alleviating the area’s housing shortage.

  • It takes an average of 70 to 106 days to meet the legal requirements to build a home in California, according to the state’s scorecard. It still takes 48 to 125 days to get construction start permits, according to the dashboard.
  • In the cities of Santa Cruz and Capitola, it takes several months longer than the state average to obtain permits, the data shows.
  • Some permit data is missing for unincorporated areas in Santa Cruz County, although the county maintains its own dashboard. Some Scotts Valley permit information is also missing. Scotts Valley planners did not respond to requests for comment.

The state dashboard tracks the average number of days it takes a homebuilder to obtain permits from a city or county. It also tracks the average number of days it takes a builder with permits to complete the housing project.

The dashboard also shows cities and counties’ progress toward state housing production goals in the state. Regional Housing Needs Allocation. These goals — set approximately every eight years under state direction — are minimums for housing production to help alleviate the state’s housing shortage.

“What you will see is that building can be a very long process,” said Suzi Merriam, director of community development for Watsonville. “The only thing regulators have control over is how long it takes to review something.”

There are some limitations to the dashboard.

  • City and county heads report the data to the state Department of Housing and Community Development and state heads do not verify it.
  • Submission and eligibility dates are not universally tracked for every project. For example, the database excludes many dates for rights, especially in the unincorporated county of Santa Cruz.
  • Average time from permit approval to construction completion includes completed homes only.
  • Housing projects of different sizes should not be compared to each other for how long it takes to license, license and build, some Santa Cruz County developers said. The dashboard offers breakdowns on home types, but drawing broader conclusions is problematic, some developers said.

“Rights” are usually the first barrier to developing land for housing. They basically show that the legal requirements have been met to build a house.

Source: California Department of Housing and Community Development from July 2020 to December 2021. The “rights” essentially show that the legal requirements have been met to build a house.
*Watsonville also included 10 in-law projects that were cleared the same day as submission, according to state data.
** This average is based on a small number of projects managed by county planners because entitlement data is missing for dozens of projects in unincorporated Santa Cruz County.

Building permit

Building permits “ensure safety, protect the environment and help us live together,” says a Santa Cruz County planning website. Part of the reason some permit processes take longer than others is the number of employees each city and county has to process permits.

Santa Cruz County — which handles building permits for unincorporated county areas such as Live Oak and the San Lorenzo Valley — maintains a separate development dashboard. It says the county’s five planners issued 1,879 permits over the past 12 months. It takes an average of 29 days to review permits, according to the dashboard.

The county also has a Salvage Permit Center Dashboard which tracks building permits in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire area where more than 900 homes were destroyed in 2020. It indicates that 148 homes were allowed to build and 177 permits were in progress as of Friday.

Iman Novin, developer and director of Novin Development, said another limitation of the scorecard is that every housing project is different. Novin’s company plans to develop homes at 831 Water St. in Santa Cruz and 2388 Park Ave. in Soquel.

“There may be environmental review processes, community opposition,” Novin said. “There are so many different factors that it’s hard to generalise.”

Barriers to housing in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Senior City Planner Sam Haschert saw firsthand how public understanding clashed with actual development timelines, especially when reviewing all of the dashboard information.

In the city of Santa Cruz, Haschert describes 38 “meaningful” projects at various stages of development. Each project includes at least 25 new homes or over 25,000 square feet of commercial space.

“It’s hard to estimate timelines, since our (office has) required timelines, but there’s a lot of the clearance process that’s out of our control,” she said.

In Santa Cruz and other cities in Santa Cruz County, a public notice must appear in the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper at least three weeks before public hearings. This process can extend the timeline of a project, depending on the number of public hearings required.

Haschert said these public hearings and forums can help the developer hear directly from the community. “They will know if there is a certain aspect of the project that will be controversial,” she said. “They will have an idea if there is something that will delay the project.”

Haschert said planners are trying to use a pre-application system to help streamline the process with a three-month timeline for smaller projects such as in-law units and longer lead times for large projects.

In Watsonville, planners said they tried to streamline the development process.

It usually takes at least two months from submitting an application to being granted rights in Watsonville.

County planners outline challenges

For Santa Cruz County Senior Planner Stephanie Hansen and Deputy Director of Community Development and Infrastructure Carolyn Burke, the main takeaway from the state’s scorecard is its comparisons with other jurisdictions. They said staffing issues played a role in the time it took to get permits, which is similar to other parts of the state.

“We’ve had employees who have chosen to relocate or change roles – it’s pretty universal. We also had to deal with the move to remote work, which requires additional training,” Burke said.

Hansen said many factors in the time it takes from completed permits to completed construction are beyond the county’s control. There is a lack of construction workers. Some developers suspend projects. “There’s not much we can do about it,” Hansen said.

Developers describe a slow pace

Some Santa Cruz County developers said that while they worked respectfully with county planners and planners in Scotts Valley and Santa Cruz, they were also frustrated with the time it took to build homes.

Kelley Trousdale is an Aptos-based realtor who has been developing homes in Santa Cruz County for a few decades. For his current project — a single-family home in an unincorporated county — he estimates he’s about five years old. It is waiting for permissions.

“From the time of initial (permit) submission, the county is expected to respond within 30 days. It takes longer than about 90 days from the initial review,” he said. “They usually have 15-20 comments you need to respond to before moving forward.”

Trousdale said a “dream scenario” would be around six months to receive permits, but it’s much more common not to receive permits for actual construction until 12 to 18 months after submission. “Public works alone had 14 or 15 conditions, [which were] very expensive types of things,” he said. “And that’s pretty typical, when you build a house now – it’s like [the county] holds you hostage.

Charles Eadie, land use planning consultant with Eadie Consultantsis working on a home and retail development in Scotts Valley originally proposed in 2008.

The Oak Creek Park project is planned for the Glen Canyon and Mount Hermon routes. The Scotts Valley Planning Commission is expected to review the project once again in August.

Eadie said he started consulting on the project in 2017. He acknowledged the difficulty of moving it forward.

“We applied in May 2018 and didn’t get any feedback from the city until May 2019,” Eadie said. “For the next year, we went back and forth on every little detail,” he said. “Since 2021, we’ve basically made a few more adjustments with city staff and then waited for the planned date for the Planning Commission, which we finally did in June – four years later.”

Eadie said the Oak Creek project is awaiting rights. This is the first bump in the development process. “It takes a long time, and I think it has for many others,” Eadie said. “There are projects that won’t even show up here, because people wanted to file or start or pull out because it looked like it wasn’t going to work.”

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