Call in the Reinforcements for the County Building Department

In the recent fires, our community lost more than 300 homes plus various other structures in Redwood Valley and Potter Valley. In addition to the financial and emotional toll this will take on displaced families, it will also put a huge strain on a system that was already stretched beyond measure.

The Mendocino County Building Department must now add a few hundred homes to the huge pipeline already waiting for their attention. Before the fire, the County told us it would take 4-8 weeks to review plans and issue a permit, and that’s assuming the plans were picture perfect to begin with.

In some cases, it takes several months to get a permit. This is in addition to the time required to complete all the steps necessary to apply for the permit, including settling with the insurance company, making the decision about whether to rebuild or relocate, selecting an architect, having the architect draft plans, approving those plans, and choosing a contractor. Only after all of that do you submit plans for approval to the County.

To make matters worse, anyone who has tried to hire a local contractor in recent years is painfully aware that even before our fire—and the ones in Sonoma County, Lake County, Napa County, Santa Cruz County, and down in Orange County—we had a shortage of available contractors. Because of the fires in Lake County in the last two years and the hurricanes in the southern part of the U.S., most of the contractors who were willing to relocate for work have already done so. Given these facts, I’m sorry to say that I think the rebuilding process for many locals will be 2-3 years or longer.

I anticipate Mendocino College will respond by expanding construction-related classes, and that the County will respond by increasing staff in the Planning and Building Departments. Although, candidly, I don’t know where they’ll find the people. Most employers in Ukiah were already facing the challenge of finding new, competent employees.

If you’re a dependable worker willing to pay attention and learn a building trade, you’ll be in high demand in the coming months and years. Many entry-level people hired in the construction trades don’t last because employers cannot afford to keep people they cannot rely on.

The winter term at Mendocino College begins January 22, and their Sustainable Construction program offers classes in construction fundamentals, residential remodel and repair, introduction to residential electrical systems, and introduction to plumbing, among others. Whether you hire someone to rebuild your home or you rebuild it yourself, it’s nice to have some basic familiarity with construction practices.

I know this column has focused on the negative side of things, but even with all the pain and inconvenience, there may be some silver linings.

The average age of the housing stock will be newer, safer, and more energy efficient. And if you calculate replacement construction costs for 250 homes at 2,000 square feet apiece; at $250 per square foot, we’re looking at $125 million of new construction with money mostly coming from outside the local economy. Add that to another $35-40 million to be spent replacing personal property from socks and underwear to refrigerators and new cars, and we’ll definitely see an uptick in the local economy.

While there’s probably nothing that could have been done to prevent these fires, hopefully next time (and there’s always a next time) we will be slightly more prepared and will suffer less personal loss.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, contact me at or visit If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you’re a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business in Ukiah for more than 40 years.

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