Frustrations grow over slow permitting

The question has been asked many times by those frustrated with the rebuild process after the Woolsey Fire: why are so few families back in their once burned-out Malibu homes?

Of 488 homes completely destroyed in the 2018 massive blaze, only 63 have been rebuilt. Of 18 apartments, 12 are habitable—four ADU’s (additional dwelling units are complete). 152 homes are currently under construction.

“I wish I had a more-simple answer for you. It’s a lot of variables,” Yolanda Bundy, the City of Malibu’s Environmental Sustainability Director/Building Official, said.

Bundy, who was hired by Malibu more than two years ago after shepherding the rebuilds in Ventura after the Thomas Fire in 2017, spoke to the Rotary Club of Malibu by Zoom last Wednesday with empathy and explanations.

Clearing the parcels of hazardous materials and debris was the first hurdle. That took roughly a year. 59 homeowners received temporary trailer permits to stay on their land once it was cleared. 150 partially damaged homes received repair permits.

The next step in rebuilds is planning, and that’s where many homeowners get hung up, according to Bundy. Regulations change along with “minimum code requirements of the State of California that city officials cannot just minimize or take away. On top of that, you put a global pandemic that has stalled a lot of what we were doing. The city went back to electronic submittals at least for the month of January due to the recent COVID surge. This complication adds to the process that already took a long time.”

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In plan check, Bundy oversees mountains of construction documents that include creating parcels, architectural features, interiors, insulation, and roofing requirements, just to name a few.

“The majority of parcels in Malibu are located in a terrain that requires more in-depth, technical geology studies. It adds more time to the process,” the building officer reminded. The environmental health portion for septic systems and water drainage is also burdensome.
Adding to the planning department’s work is an increase in remodeling construction permits filed in Malibu over the last two years. It appears while working from home; many residents decided to upgrade or add generators and solar panels.

Bundy’s staff of only three inspectors has made a whopping 25,000 inspections in two-and-a-half years. Bundy acknowledged she could use more support and predicts another inspector will be hired in 2022 as construction picks up.

While the city contracts some inspections to outside employees, it can’t move fire department inspections any quicker.

“That’s out of the city’s control. They work directly under the county. They’re not only reviewing Malibu properties. They review all the rest of the county,” Bundy explained. The fire department has two steps—a vegetation review along with an occupancy review.

“Working with the fire department at the beginning before COVID, we were able to have a representative from the fire department here or in the Calabasas office. Now those reviews are being conducted electronically.”

Once permits are issued, construction has its own challenges. “We are seeing people who started building a year-and-a-half ago are barely finalizing the exterior and interior. The back and forth with the design professionals is time-consuming. They have other projects…too. I wish I had a more-simple answer for you. It’s a lot of variables.”

Bundy is concerned that 143 properties have not submitted anything to the city. “I’m hearing that 77 parcels have been sold. We have families that possibly were underinsured. Some families don’t have time to rebuild.” Bundy surmised, “Some families members maybe are not healthy, or families decide it’s too much stress.”

The shortage of materials and skyrocketing prices also contribute to slowing the process. “What the families estimated was not enough. A lot of families had to minimize plans. Insurance claims and Edison claims took a lot of time. Some homeowners are still dealing with insurance. There’s a backlog of gas and electrical hookups,” Bundy added.

Bundy says one of her goals after COVID wanes is to have Malibu families who have finished rebuilding meet with those in construction in an effort to share helpful information.

“Families still need a lot of help,” and Bundy always says she’s available if people reach out to her. “The reality is I can’t change what they [fire victims] have been through, but it’s a blessing to be able to serve.”

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