Work is set to start next month on a new fire station in the Fountaingrove area that initially was opposed by some residents who said it didn't belong in an upscale hillside development.

The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a construction contract for the approximately $4 million station in one of the city's most hazardous fire areas.

"Within the city we have wildland-urban interface areas — some call it a high fire severity area," Fire Chief Mark McCormick said of the potential for big grassland and tree fires. "This is one of those areas."

He said Fountaingrove has some of the slowest emergency response times.

"Right now in the Fountaingrove area, 21 percent of calls are over five minutes," he said, adding that with the new station "we will see an improvement."

Three years ago, the need for faster response times was not the foremost concern of a group of neighbors near the proposed station at the corner of Fountain Grove Parkway and Newgate Court.

They appealed unsuccessfully to the City Council to overturn approval of the firehouse, saying it would generate excessive noise, traffic, create aesthetic problems and pose dangers to children playing in the area.

But a larger number of residents were in favor of it, including the Fountaingrove neighborhood association.

"They were very supportive," said McCormick, who added that the association worked with the fire department on the design of the new station so it wouldn't clash with the pricey homes.

Conceptual drawings and images of the two-bay, 5,300-square-foot station make it look more like a house, with plenty of wood board siding and flat roof tiles.

"When you come in, you don't see a fire station, but it fits into the neighborhood," McCormick said.

Other parts of the city, including Oakmont and Bennett Valley are also classified as high fire hazard areas because of extensive vegetation.

But city officials are particularly aware of how quickly fire can spread in Fountaingrove, going back to a memorable fire almost 50 years ago, before it was developed with housing.

"It's the area that burned in 1964 when fire roared down the hills through Franz Valley," said Mayor Scott Bartley.

"The last time, it just burned brush up to the back of Community Hospital on Chanate (Road)," he noted.

Even though at the time it was barren land, before houses were built, "if you don't think those burn, go to Santa Barbara. Look what happened in that fire," he said of the many homes lost.

In 2008, a wildfire sparked by remnants of a bonfire destroyed more than 200 homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara.

When the new Fountaingrove station goes into service, it will be easier for heavy, water-laden trucks to respond, instead of having to drive slowly up a steep grade from the current closest fire station on Parker Hill Road.

Plans call for the Parker Hill station to be closed and sold as surplus property.

Chief McCormick said coverage for medical and fire calls in that area will not only come from Fountaingrove, but also a fire station that opened in 2009 on Lewis Road.

Funding for the Fountaingrove station was elusive. The city was not able to obtain a federal grant for the project.

Instead, the council this week approved a form of lease arrangement to borrow the bulk of the construction funds from BBVA Compass Bank at a projected interest rate of just over 2 percent.

Other funds totalling around $600,000 came from a fund set aside for a future southeast fire house at Kawana Terrace and Franz Kafka Way.

Fire officials said there are still plans to build that station within the next two to three years, but it was made a lower priority because the pace of development in that part of town was slower than anticipated.

The ultimate source of funding for both stations is Measure O, a quarter-cent sales tax Santa Rosa voters approved for public safety 10 years ago that expires in 2025.

Fire officials said they are also looking at reducing costs at the southeast station by splitting staffing with the adjacent Rincon Valley fire district.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.