If you look at a zoning map of Mendocino County, the lines may appear arbitrary, crazy, or downright silly. But these lines determine where we live, eat, work, and play. They regulate population density, create bucolic hillsides, renovate downtowns, or segregate our land. Those seemingly innocuous zoning maps are but one of the many tools a Mendocino County planner needs to do their work.
A planner needs to have the mind of an engineer, the heart of an artist, and the patience of a saint. In this county of 91,000 people, more than 4,000 small businesses, and thousands of single-family homes, the planners and staff at the County of Mendocino’s Planning and Building Services (PBS) understand at a deep level exactly where we live, eat, work, and play. At the helm of this department is Julia Krog, the Director of the County’s Planning & Building Services.
Julia is a native of Mendocino County, making her home in the picturesque village of Elk. From an early age Julia recognized that her future lay in public service. Her parents are both involved with the Elk County Water District and her dad is the manager of the Irish Beach Water District. After graduating from Humboldt Polytechnic with a degree in Environmental Management and Protection Planning, she began work in 2013 as a Planner 1 with County PBS in their Fort Bragg office. The disastrous Redwood Valley fire of 2017 spurred a move to the County offices in Ukiah where she has been ever since. Julia has steadily risen in the department to become Director in March 2022.
Planning & Building Services has a wide remit with four different divisions that serve the public and the county’s elected officials. The Planning Division is responsible for handling the whole gamut of discretionary permits, which require a decision-making body to exercise judgment prior to the permit’s approval. The division mostly handles permits for subdivisions, use permits, boundary line adjustments, and coastal development. The Planning Division also contains a cartographic wing that handles mapping and is the County Addresser. The Planning Division is also responsible for preparing, updating, and implementing the County General Plan.
The Building Division is responsible for the administration and implementation of state and local building construction regulations. The Building Division reviews building permits, takes care of plan checks of all commercial, residential, and institutional developments, and makes required inspections in the county as well as within the City of Fort Bragg and City of Point Arena. The Building Division is also a critical part of any disaster response where Inspectors will perform damage assessments.
The PBS Administrative Services Division is made up of the department’s front counter staff and the commission services staff who support the ten different county hearing bodies and commissions, such as the Business Improvement District. This division also includes the fiscal team that administers grants, supports the department’s budget, and handles payroll, accounts, and other financial operations.
The fourth division of the PBS department is Code Enforcement, which is primarily focused on ensuring code enforcement for zoning and checking on building code violations. This division is also responsible for cannabis cultivation enforcement and the Abandoned Vehicle Abatement program.
Julia notes that staffing is now higher than at any other time for the department. “When I started ten years ago, there were only 27 people on staff, so we’ve almost doubled that number.” However, she pointed out with a wry smile, the workload has also exponentially increased. “As regulations change at both the state and county level, more checks and balances are enacted to ensure that development is environmentally appropriate. And this means additional work for the developer and the department.” Julia continues to recruit qualified planners to meet the rise in demand for services. “In addition, we are upgrading our online systems, such as eTRAKiT, to simplify access for contractors and the public.”
“We rolled out an updated eTRAKiT system in early March 2023,” said Julia. “Previously contractors could apply for permits electronically, but there was no mechanism for them to attach plans to the application.” The new system allows a permit application, plan uploads, and the payment of a pre-paid plan check fee so the entire process has been streamlined. The issuance of the actual permit is, however, still done in person as it’s a physical item that staff issues and requires a wet signature by the applicant as well as delivery of the “Job Copy” set of the plans. eTRAKiT also allows for online inspection requests for building projects.
Julia did have some great news for home or business owners wanting to add solar to their energy equation. “We are excited to receive a state grant that will enable us to implement CalAPP Solar Plus. This is a module that will connect with our existing permit tracking system (eTRAKiT) to automate the plan check for eligible residential solar systems and issue a permit.” When implemented, this new system will save staff time and make it easier for residents and businesses to invest in solar technology.
Discretionary permits, which are handled by the Planning division, can take up to six to eight months to go through the entire review process. To speed things along, Julia encourages applicants to request a pre-application conference. This meeting with different divisions and departments allows applicants to determine what reports and studies may be required before going ahead with a project. “For example,” said Julia, “the conference might reveal that a project requires more road improvement than was evident and this, in itself, might be a cost-prohibitive barrier to development.” A regular building permit, which is for projects such as building a new house, adding an extension, installing a pool, etc., generally takes between six to eight weeks to obtain.
Planning & Building Services has a two-tiered business license fee system: a home occupation license (for someone like a bookkeeper working from home) is $180 and the current application fee for a commercial license is $424. Obtaining a business license takes about a month from start to finish. It begins with a review by PBS and then it goes to the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s office for the issuance of the actual license, which has a $40 fee attached.
Julia is optimistic for the future of her department. “We have three great projects in the works that will do a lot to help with economic development in the county over the next few years.” First is the CalAPP Solar Plus module for the eTRAKiT system, which will be live in the next few months. In addition, the department is working on an update for the inland area zoning code, which will provide greater clarity and simplify processes for applicants. Watch for news about both of these projects by the end of summer 2023!
“Our most exciting news though is that we are finally going to update the Local Coastal Program (LCP), which is part of the county’s general plan.” Julia explained that although the Coastal Element of the General Plan was approved in 1985, the zoning portion was not approved until 1992. “With the almost 2.2 million dollar grant from the Coastal Commission, we’ll be working on a comprehensive update to our LCP—the first in 30 years. The grant will run for three years and we aim to have our full LCP amendment ready for the Commission by the end of 2026.” The grant has a climate resiliency lens to it so PBS will be working with other coastal entities, such as the Noyo Ocean Collective and others, to find ways to streamline and clarify the department’s processes regarding the LCP. “We will be incorporating the work being done in Noyo Harbor into the county’s LCP update,” said Julia referring to the grant received by the Noyo Harbor District for blue economy development. To read more about the Local Coastal Program, click here.
In its work with small businesses throughout the county, West Center maintains a working relationship with Planning and Building Services. We can assist your small business to be prepared for meetings with Planning and Building Services. If your business needs assistance, contact West Center today!