Woolsey Rebuilds: A Tale of Two Cities

A home is rebuilt in the Malibu Park neighborhood.

Two years ago, the Woolsey Fire destroyed 479 homes in the city of Malibu.

As of this week, just 17 of those homes have been rebuilt. 

All 17 of those rebuilds have occurred over the past year, with the first certificate of occupancy offered to longtime Malibu resident Susan Stiffelman 14 months after the fire, in January 2020. But the pace of completion has been accelerating. Last Monday, Nov. 9, the two-year anniversary of the fire, there were only 16 rebuilds completed. One week, one more rebuild.

“I know to many of the community … 16 may not look like a very big number, but I know we are making a big progress,” Environmental Sustainability Director/Building Official Yolanda Bundy said in a phone interview with The Malibu Times on Nov. 7.

“I’m hoping and praying in the next two to three months, the number—16 homes completed—is possibly going to double, so we’ll be, hopefully, at 30,” Bundy added. And the number will go up from there. As of Tuesday, Nov. 17, another 139 projects were under construction, 67 were undergoing plan review from city departments, 47 were approved by the planning department and awaiting review, and 14 were under review with planning. The process is in motion.

Bundy, who was hired by the city in October 2019, fresh off helping facilitate the rebuild of Ventura following 2017’s Thomas Fire, has widely been credited as the driving force behind that acceleration.

“It is a full commitment and I’m—not only myself, but staff—taking to heart with a lot of compassion and dedication, knowing that we are serving the public and we need to continue doing that,” Bundy said. “So, to me, this is not just a job. It’s my life, and also a mission that I have been given.

“[Malibu families] are never going to forget what they went through, and I cannot make things go back to where they were, but if, in any case, I can do a little bit to help them out, that is what I’m here for and that is my commitment to the City of Malibu,” she continued.

Bundy is far from alone in her mission to facilitate rebuilds. Malibu City Council took three major steps to help smooth the process for families looking to get back into their homes: waiving permit fees, expediting “like-for-like” rebuilds and hiring additional staff to move the process along faster.

Original estimates stated the permit fee waivers would end up saving each family about $10,000 and, as of Tuesday, the city has waived more than $3.8 million in fees to families seeking to rebuild their homes. 

In January 2019, the city entered into a contract for planning services to help improve the rate of rebuilds. “The majority of the planning department was tasked with public outreach, predesign meetings, public workshops, staffing the fire rebuild counter and plan reviews,” according to information shared by a City of Malibu spokesperson. “In addition, the city obtained three full-time contract planners to assist with rebuilds. In the last two years, the department has been able to reduce the number of contract planners from three to one.”

The city “basically cut every piece of red tape they could find,” council member-elect and local Realtor Paul Grisanti described. Grisanti, who has become a rebuild expert in the years since Woolsey, said some permits were being issued in as little as six months. 

However, when it comes to county rebuilds, Grisanti and many others have classified the effort as less-than-enthusiastic.

“The complaints I’m getting is it’s business as usual over there,” Grisanti said. “There’s no, ‘Gee we’re sorry, let’s help you get back in your home.’”

From the point of view of one fire victim, Council Member Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, the issue is compounded by the county’s bureaucracy. 

“The county, because of its large building department, has different people in different departments and they move around, or they have a counter person and then they have a specialist, but they are overworked,” Wagner said.

As of Tuesday, across all of unincorporated LA County (including areas outside the 90265 zip code on the other side of the hill), out of 397 homes lost, seven had been fully rebuilt and another 10 had undergone partial rebuilds. In total, 175 plans were submitted with 117 permits issued. Anecdotally, there was one known rebuild within what is considered “county Malibu” outside city limits.

On Saturday, LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl included in her regular weekly email information about the Woolsey rebuild process, describing: “the City of Malibu and the surrounding neighborhoods have worked to rebuild and prioritize emergency preparedness” and including a video detailing the efforts within the City of Malibu, such as expedited permitting and fee waivers. However, those efforts have not been replicated on the county level.

As Wagner said: “In the county, there’s not a dime given away.”

Juan Madrigal, principal engineer for LA County Public Works, said the reason for that was simple: “Because with all these incidents that are continuously happening, year in and year out, it would be a huge cost for the county to waive fees—a tremendous cost, really.”

Madrigal, who is overseeing Woolsey Fire rebuilds, is now also assigned to rebuilds for the more recent Bobcat and Lake fires.

“That’s just to show you how a lot of incidents continue to happen, year in and year out, that would be a huge cost for the county,” Madrigal said. However, the engineer did acknowledge the intensity of Woolsey, saying that two additional plan check engineers and one additional building inspector have been brought on to assist with rebuilds on the county level, with another inspector expected as rebuilds ramp up.

Rebuild numbers will keep rising in the county and city, but the perception of the process continues to vary; in unincorporated LA County, frustration abounds, even as more and more permits are issued. After numerous conversations with those seeking to rebuild outside city limits, Grisanti had one takeaway: “They have failed to treat the plight of persons who lost their homes with anything other than disinterest.”