San Mateo County to study high fees for residential building permits and inspections

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors has chosen to postpone a proposed fee increase for already costly residential building permits and inspections.

In response to growing opposition to fees in unincorporated areas that are already larger than those of nearby cities, Board of Supervisors President Don Horsley requested the delay and commissioned former Burlingame City Manager Jim Nantell to study the fees and the planning department. Nantell will present the findings to the board in about six months, Horsley said.

“I was never really comfortable with the high fees in the first place,” Horsley said. “I want to see how we derive those fee numbers in the first place.”

The planning and building fees for buildings in unincorporated parts of the county are much more expensive than in neighboring incorporated cities because some time ago the county opted to make the Planning and Building Department cost-neutral — meaning fees and other means of revenue generation would fund the entire operation.

Also, many of the unincorporated areas in the county are environmentally sensitive and require more expensive protection measures. Stormwater runoff, for example, is an ongoing concern that requires costly mitigation measures, Horsley said.

As a result, fees are often much higher than the amount nearby communities charge in similar situations. County resident Maria Rutenburg said a $6,276 permit to remodel her garage and make a small addition to her home would have cost a mere $1,414 in Redwood City. More than $1,600 of the county's fee stemmed from environmental permits.

The stormwater runoff fee is $258 where required.

The county charged another resident $16,934.45 for allegedly completing an illegal bathroom remodel, county records show. The building and permit fees were $8,170.45 and the penalties were another $8,764.

“We really strive to provide efficient and effective service,” department Deputy Director Steve Monowitz said. “Sometimes there are difficult issues with planning decisions. It's not unusual that people with certain interests might not be happy with the outcome.”

The county's revenue-neutral approach has led some county residents to say the Planning and Building Department isn't performing its duties with taxpayers in mind.

“It is the most expensive, inefficient, and abusive government agency I have had to deal with,” Rutenburg wrote in an email. “It is only getting worse.”

Horsley said although he's not comfortable with the high fees, he gets very few complaints about the Planning and Building Department itself.

The proposed fee increase would generate approximately $18,000, bringing the total revenue generated from new fees to $218,000 per year, according to county documents.

“San Mateo County has a bifurcated system, and that does cost us more,” he said.

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