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Sonoma County bankruptcy filings in 2011 fell for the first time in five years as fewer consumers sought protection from creditors.

However, a near-record number of residents and companies in Sonoma County are still struggling with debt despite the end of the recession nationally in 2009, according to new figures released this week by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Santa Rosa.

Sonoma County consumers and businesses filed 2,380 bankruptcy cases last year, down from 2010 but still the second-highest number in records going back more than two decades.

Business bankruptcies rose 3 percent, to 118 cases, while consumer bankruptcies dropped 8 percent to 2,262 cases.

Bankruptcy Judge Alan Jaroslovsky and other observers welcomed the drop in total cases but were cautious in characterizing the import.

"I think maybe we see the first glimmerings of being over the hump, but we've still got a long ways to go," said Jaroslovsky, who has presided over the Santa Rosa-based court for 25 years.

The number of cases is still double the historic workload for the court, he said.

"You could say the filings are down, but as far as we're concerned, we're still trying to keep our heads above water," he said.

Residents and businesses in Lake and Mendocino counties filed fewer bankruptcy cases last year, too.

Bankruptcy filings dropped 5 percent in Lake County, to 301 cases, and fell 4 percent in Mendocino County, to 245 cases.

Overall, North Coast bankruptcy filings declined 8 percent, to 4,688 cases, according to the Santa Rosa court, which serves seven counties along the coast from Marin to Del Norte.

Notable bankruptcies last year included Santa Rosa-based homebuilder Pinnacle Homes, Windsor Town Green developer Orrin Thiessen, Santa Rosa furniture retailer Cokas Diko, Forestville's Russian River Vineyards winery and restaurant and the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Parks District, which oversees the Fort Bragg Aquatic Center.

Bankruptcy filings peaked in 2010 as consumers and businesses sought to escape debt that piled up during the recession.

Three in four cases were filed by residents and companies attempting to liquidate their debts in Chapter 7 — sometimes called a "fresh start" bankruptcy.

The plunge in housing prices that began in 2007 is believed responsible for a spike in a category of personal bankruptcy known as Chapter 13. The number of such cases has risen steadily for five years and jumped 11 percent last year on the North Coast to 1,113 cases, or nearly a quarter of all bankruptcy filings.

This type of bankruptcy can allow underwater homeowners a chance to keep their homes by removing debt from a home equity line of credit but not from the primary, or first, mortgage.

"It's people trying to get rid of the second mortgage," said Santa Rosa bankruptcy attorney Ed Dechant.

Dechant sees a possible jump in Chapter 7 bankruptcies this year if foreclosures increase, due to the recent $25 billion mortgage settlement between banks and various state attorneys general. While foreclosure satisfies the debt on the principal mortgage, the lenders of home equity loans can still seek repayment of those debts. In response, he said, many who lose their homes will seek protection from those creditors.

Robert Eyler, director of Sonoma State University's Center for Regional Economic Analysis, said the sluggish nature of hiring, wage growth, business income and home prices indicate that bankruptcy filings aren't likely to drop sharply in the near term.

Pot around Sonoma County

Three Sonoma County cannabis dispensaries will be open for adult-use sales on Jan. 1, 2018:

Solful
11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
785 Gravenstein Hwy. S., Sebastopol

SPARC/Peace in Medicine
10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
6771 Sebastopol Ave. #100, Sebastopol

Mercy Wellness of Cotati
9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
7950 Redwood Drive #8, Cotati

Pot around Sonoma County

Sebastopol: Adult-use and medical cannabis sales take place at the city’s two dispensaries. Manufacturing and other aspects of the business will be considered in 2018. Indoor cultivation for personal use is allowed.

Cotati: Allows adult-use and medical cannabis sales at its sole dispensary.

Santa Rosa: Medical marijuana businesses are allowed in the city. Santa Rosa will allow sales of adult-use cannabis on Jan. 19. Indoor cultivation for personal use is allowed.

Cloverdale: Up to two cannabis dispensaries are allowed in the city, although there are none currently. Manufacturing, distribution and cultivation business permit applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Petaluma: Allows cannabis delivery services and some cannabis manufacturing but has not allowed any dispensaries inside city limits.

Windsor: Dispensaries and other types of cannabis businesses as well as outdoor cultivation is banned in Windsor. Residents must get a town permit for personal-use cultivation, which is only allowed to occur indoors.

Sonoma city: Cannabis cultivation, indoor and outdoor, is banned but the rule will be reconsidered December 2018. Delivery businesses with headquarters outside the city must acquire a city permit to conduct deliveries in the city. Some personal cultivation is allowed but residents must comply with a variety of city requirements like security systems.

Sonoma County: Rules are in places for medical marijuana businesses and supervisors will consider rules for adult use in 2018.

Rohnert Park: Does not all manufacturing, distributing or selling marijuana within city limits.

Healdsburg: Prohibits medical marijuana dispensaries.

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Find more in-depth cannabis news, culture and politics at EmeraldReport.com, authoritative marijuana coverage from the PD.

"There's still people out there hanging on by their fingernails," he said.

Similarly, Santa Rosa bankruptcy attorney Doug Provencher said many businesses are meeting ongoing expenses for now, but their debts far exceed their assets. In time, the depletion of inventory or some other obstacle will force them into bankruptcy protection.

"There are still a lot of what I call zombie businesses," Provencher said.

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