SAN BRUNO -- Marking a milestone of recovery, work wrapped up Monday to clear away the homes consumed in a natural-gas pipeline disaster that killed eight people.
Crews will return to the site of the Sept. 9 explosion today to take away any remaining debris, including stands of scorched trees, and will begin installing features to prevent erosion, said Dean Peterson, head of San Mateo County's Environmental Health Division.
The 35 plots cleaned up in the past two weeks could be approved for rebuilding as early as the end of next week, Peterson said. But before the county gives its OK, the properties will have to pass tests on levels of hazardous materials left behind by the blaze.
Fearing toxins such as asbestos and arsenic could be washed into the bay by winter rains or pulled into the air by wind, officials conducted an intense effort to clean up the site at the end of September.
Bill Bishop, whose home on Claremont Drive overlooks what had been rows of ruins, said Monday the cleared-off dirt lots are a definite improvement over rubble.
"It was discouraging," he said of the destruction. "But this means people are going to start building and coming back. You're going to see a whole new neighborhood."
Bishop's home of 29 years was damaged by falling debris, smoke and flames, but is still habitable. The retired San Francisco trash collector said he looks forward to the community coming back, not just the houses.
"It's going to be nice "... seeing our neighbors move back," said Bishop, 61. "I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy."
City officials hope to ease and speed up rebuilding by waiving costs and accelerating the plan review process. People who lost their homes wouldn't have to pay the roughly $14,000 in fees for building a new house, under a plan being considered tonight by the City Council. Homeowners repairing damage to their properties won't have to pay fees either.
The waivers could cost the city up to $500,000, according to a staff report.
Currently, it takes five to seven months to get through the planning process to build a new house in San Bruno, but the council will discuss how to expedite it. Getting approvals for significant remodeling projects typically takes three to four months. According to a staff report, the process could be shortened by months and could skip certain steps such as going before the Planning Commission.
Phil Piserchio, whose home on Claremont Drive survived, agreed that clearing away the rubble signals rebirth for the community. He said he has kept his 3-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son away from their home so they wouldn't see the destruction.
"In three years it's going to be a new subdivision," he said.
Piserchio, 49, hopes that residents will get some respite from the coming construction.
"They need to put up something to block the noise and dust over the next two to three years," he said.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado has asked the State Board of Equalization to allow the immediate reassessment of San Bruno properties that lost value because of the blast.
The City Council meets at 7 p.m. in the Senior Center at 1555 Crystal Springs Road.
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335.