Permit dispute may force eviction of wildfire cleanup workers

A Santa Rosa contractor providing a free place for employees to live while they clean up wildfire debris is in a showdown with the city. The dispute could force him to evict the workers from his Coffey Park property.|

A Santa Rosa contractor providing a free place for employees to live while they clean up wildfire debris is in a showdown with the city because he lacks permits to park trailers on his vacant lot, a dispute that could force him to evict the workers from his Coffey Park property.

Michael Wolff has been letting workers live in 10 trailers on his family’s Dennis Lane property just north of Coffey Park, where 1,400 homes burned in the devastating Tubbs fire.

But facing up to $10,000 in daily fines for operating what amounts to an illegal trailer park, Wolff said the workers may soon have to pack up and find somewhere else to bunk down.

“These workers need a place to live,” said Wolff, who says his crews have cleaned about 100 lots to date. “If this isn’t it, then where is it?”

The dispute highlights the acute housing shortage experienced not just by the 5,130 Sonoma County families who lost their homes in the October wildfires, but by the army of workers who flooded into the area to help with the cleanup and rebuilding effort.

Hundreds of workers have packed campgrounds normally closed or half-full this time of year, crowded into rented homes, or relied upon other housing arrangements made by the companies performing work under the oversight of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The city and the county have tried to create flexible land-use rules to respond to the crisis, making it easier for people to live in RVs or tiny homes on their properties in the fire zones.

Wolff saw an opportunity to do something similar on his property to help the workers he was hiring as a subcontractor to AshBritt, Inc., one of the lead contractors on the initial cleanup effort.

Wolff, a former U.S. Marine who started Wolff Contracting in 2010 and built his business by remodeling homes, went from employing about 20 people before the fires to 85 soon after, though that number has dropped recently, he said.

He figured the vacant 1-acre parcel on Dennis Lane, which is owned by his father, Ken Wolff, was the perfect solution to the housing crunch facing his workers.

“I really thought this is what the city was talking about trying to be able to do,” Wolff said. “What ever happened to that conversation? I went and I did it, and now I’m getting penalized.”

City officials say they’re willing to work with Wolff, but only if he applies for a use permit and meets with city staff to discuss what is possible on his site.

“We just want to walk him through the process and find a way to make this work,” said David Gouin, director of the Housing and Community Services Department, which includes code enforcement.

Wolff took that advice and met with city planning officials Tuesday, but nothing was resolved, he said.

The city has established more flexible land-use rules in zones where the fires did the most damage. It has also created a “resilient city” permitting department to speed fire-related housing requests, Gouin said. Dennis Lane is included in the Coffey Park “resilient city” zone, and therefore might qualify for some special accommodations, Gouin said.

The city has had an open code enforcement case on the rural residential property going back to September, before the fires, Gouin said. This included a large pile of soil from a sewer line installation that had been piled on the property, some grading work, and the construction of a shed with electrical wiring in it, all without permits, Gouin noted.

Wolff said he had started developing the property for a future home site for him and his father.

City code enforcement officers were diverted by the fire disaster, but when they returned to the property late last year, there were eight travel trailers on it, Gouin said. The city wants to ensure the situation is safe, making sure the RVs are a safe distance apart and that any utilities are hooked up properly.

Wolff said he has discussed the situation with city officials four times. He initially was led to believe it could all be worked out, he said. Most recently he says he was told there was nothing he could do to avoid fines of $1,000 per day for each inhabited trailer on the property, among other violations, beginning today.

He has the option of appealing the notice, but cannot get a hearing until March 11 - a date that exposes him to more than $300,000 in fines if he lets the workers stay while he appeals, he said.

One of those workers is Quincy Holm, a 26-year-old from Payson, Arizona, who hauled his three dump trucks, pickup, trailer, girlfriend and dog out to Sonoma County to help with the fire cleanup. He said he’d hoped to do more than just debris removal, including working on the rebuilding effort and, if it went well, possibly relocating to Sonoma County.

He’s looked at every trailer park within an hour’s drive of Santa Rosa, including Alexander Valley and the Russian River area, and can’t find any places that’ll take them. Most are booked solid with waiting lists, he said.

“They just laugh at ya,” Holm said.

Some will only commit to a short trial period, after which they could be asked to leave, he said.

Today’s deadline is stressful, especially since he and others work 12 hours a day on the cleanup, leaving them little time to line up something else.

“We’re pretty much out of options,” Holm said. “It’s getting close to crunch time and they’re panicking.”

Another employee living in a trailer at the Dennis Lane property lost everything when the home he rented in the Mark West Springs Road area burned to the ground.

“I made it out with my socks,” said Sonny Hackwell, a 25-year-old Army veteran.

With few prospects and the area’s high costs weighing on him, Hackwell said he had decided to move until he heard of the opportunity to help with the cleanup.

“The only reason I’m still in this state is because of Wolff,” Hackwell said.

Wolff said he can’t just pay for his workers to stay in hotels because the Army Corps of Engineers prohibits contractors working on the cleanup from staying in North Coast hotel rooms, to avoid displacing residents who lost their homes in the fire.

It’s not clear what type of accommodation the city might be able to offer Wolff under the “resilient city” zoning rules. While his family’s Dennis Lane property is in the Coffey Park zone, the flexible temporary housing rules are only for damaged properties.

The city’s website states “recreational vehicles, modular homes, tiny homes, and mobile homes are permitted to be installed on residential properties that have had the primary dwelling damaged beyond habitability, or destroyed.”

All Wolff’s property had was a disputed mound of dirt and a shed that was undamaged.

He disputes many of the city’s claims, including that he needs permits for a pile of dirt, which he said he planned to use for his home site, or for his shed, which is under 120 square feet and therefore doesn’t need one, he said.

Holm feels the workers living on the property have taken reasonable steps to minimize their impact. Several truckloads of gravel were added to keep trucks from tracking mud onto the road. There are no utility connections of any kind, he said. The septic systems of the trailers and portable toilet are pumped out regularly, fresh water is delivered by truck, and power is supplied by a large but quiet generator, he said.

“It’s as temporary as it can get,” Holm said

Temporary may very well be the best descriptor of the arrangement. If the city doesn’t lift the threat of steeper fines, Wolff said he’ll have no choice but to send the workers elsewhere today.

“We’re just trying to do a good thing here,” Wolff said. “But I don’t want to put myself in jeopardy for helping.”

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