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Sonoma County faces long road to recovery following devastating Wine Country fires

Santa Rosa mayor Chris Coursey, in Santa Rosa's Hidden Valley neighborhood, that was razed by the Tubbs fire, Friday Oct. 20, 2017. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

KEVIN MCCALLUM AND J.D. MORRIS,

Sonoma County and Santa Rosa will be forever changed by the most devastating wildfires in state history.

At least 23 people are dead, 6,800 buildings destroyed and thousands of residents displaced in the county. Untold more are grappling with emotional wounds and financial burdens left by what Gov. Jerry Brown called “a horror that no one could have imagined.”

With the flames mostly contained after an unprecedented firefighting effort and recent light rains, local leaders are now turning their attention to the arduous task of recovery.

How long will it last? Who will rebuild? And how will the city and county that emerge from the ashes be different?

Local leaders are banking on the region rebounding quickly following a speedy cleanup effort, a streamlined rebuilding process and a support system generous and responsive enough to allow displaced residents to stay or return.

Others can’t see how the blow to the economy, deepening of the area’s chronic housing crisis, acute labor shortage and volatility in supply and cost of building materials, can lead to anything but years of stagnation and exodus.

Some see the full recovery taking a decade.

But if the city displays the same courage, unity and compassion during the recovery as it has responding to the fires so far, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey says he’s confident the recovery can be robust and the city that rises from the ashes will be stronger.

“We have all the advantages of any place that’s ever existed on earth that’s gone through a disaster,” Coursey said. “I don’t want to put a cap on expectations. I think our expectations right now should be through the roof.”

The race is on

Just like first responders sprinted to evacuate people ahead of the inferno that blasted down from Calistoga two weeks ago, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials are now racing to get the recovery underway as fast as possible.

The longer the cleanup and rebuilding process takes, the greater the number of people who will be unable — or unwilling — to see it through. They may opt to start over in a place that is cheaper, closer to where they work or nearer friends and family.

“We know we’ll probably lose population from this,” said Debbi Lauchner, chief financial officer of the city of Santa Rosa. “I know people who’ve lost their homes who said they’re not relocating back to Santa Rosa.”

Homebuilder Keith Christopherson said he has been contacted by dozens of people asking about their homes, many of whom have fled to other parts of the country.

“People have just scattered to the winds,” said Christopherson, who built many of the homes in the upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood that went up in flames.

Santa Rosa lost at least 2,907 homes in the fires, or 5 percent of its housing stock, plus 86 commercial properties representing 400,000 square feet of space. County officials put their tally at more than 3,800 occupied structures in the unincorporated area.

Both Santa Rosa and Sonoma County were already consumed by a housing crisis long before the destructive fires wiped out entire neighborhoods. Pressured by its proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley and constrained in other ways by its rural character, the county’s rents had skyrocketed, apartment vacancy rates were near zero and home prices were out of reach for many residents.

The crisis has only become more desperate.

“We couldn’t afford to lose one single housing unit prior to this,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane.

Now the county’s goal of “housing for all” seems much farther out of reach, she said. Even residents not directly affected by the fire are finding themselves wondering whether the housing crunch is about to become unbearable. Many who were already struggling with the high cost of living and housing are asking whether the time is right for a move.

“We’ve felt pushed to the edge for a while, and now I feel like it’s at a tipping point,” said Laura Bohler, who rents a home outside Healdsburg.

The 55-year-old paralegal raised her three daughters in Sonoma County and has parents in Novato, so she doesn’t want to leave. But as a renter, she can’t see any way she’ll be able to afford the higher rents she now fears are on the horizon.

“We were thinking we were going to have to make this decision about two years out, but we need to start planning now,” Bohler said. “We’re thinking Cloverdale or Lake County or Arizona.”

Seeking stability

Getting as many residents back into a routine as quickly as possible is one of the most important priorities for any disaster-hit area, said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

“There are definitely similarities between recovery from this kind of disaster and a natural disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake,” Redlener said.

In addition to the obvious physical destruction, the displacement of the people who live in the community can be just as traumatic and crucial to address, he said. New Orleans, for example, lost tens of thousands of residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he noted. A decade later, the city’s population was still only 80 percent of its pre-hurricane levels.

“We don’t normally think about the human aspect of recovery, but it’s really, really important,” Redlener said.

Aware that stabilizing the population is vital to the region’s recovery, Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlynn said recovery plans have been part of the city’s emergency response from day one. The city is committed to executing the most aggressive timetable possible for a recovery of this magnitude, he said.

“We’re going to challenge ourselves and we’re going to challenge our partners to do this in record time,” McGlynn said. “We want to see progress tomorrow.”

If all goes according to plan, the state hopes the cleanup of properties will be completed by “very early 2018,” said Eric Lamoureux, the senior executive in charge of the state Office of Emergency Services in Sonoma County.

Contractors who work with the federal Army Corps of Engineers will be responsible for cleaning up debris in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, while the state will manage the cleanup of the other fires that have ravaged Northern California, Lamoureux said.

The initial cleanup effort will begin this week with teams managed by the Environmental Protection Agency performing sweeps to remove certain household toxic materials from burned neighborhoods. That should take about two weeks, with the full-site cleanups and debris removal beginning thereafter, Lamoureux said.

The timeline assumes property owners grant the government access to their home sites, which Lamoureux said he hopes everyone does.

“The cleanup of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County will be far quicker the more people that allow us to help them,” he said.

Speeding the reconstruction

Assuming that goes smoothly — a big assumption given that the decisions will be made by individual property owners of varying financial means — questions abound about how the rebuilding process will unfold.

Some residents already are banding together to see if they can rebuild their neighborhoods more quickly as a group than as individuals.

Of the 49 homes in the Vintage Woods subdivision in Fountaingrove, about 22 have expressed interest in having them rebuilt by Christopherson, said Hans Dippel, who owned a home in Fountaingrove that burned down.

“There was never any doubt that we would rebuild,” said Dippel, who lived with his family on Chateau Court and has a son starting high school this year.

The winery supply salesman and former Santa Rosa City Council candidate returned to his property Thursday to sift through the ashes, finding little more than a garden gnome — a gift intended to bring the house good luck.

While many residents are eager to get the rebuilding process going, others say they’re not up to the task, Dippel said.

“They said two years is like a lifetime to them,” Dippel said of his conversations with some older residents who can’t see themselves sticking it out to rebuild.

Dippel worries the process will take longer if individual homeowners go it alone, working only with their own insurance companies to hire individual contractors to rebuild their homes one by one, he said. Hiring one builder to do many or all the homes in an area will create economies of scale, keeping prices down and accelerating the process, he said.

That’s why he reached out to Christopherson, once the largest homebuilder in Sonoma County before the recession.

Christopherson, his wife Brenda, and daughter Amy Christopherson, Bolton family are now partners in Christopherson Properties, a new real estate brokerage and property development company that is gearing up to be a big player local again. He started building homes in Fountaingrove in the late 1980s and estimates he built several hundred there over the ensuing two decades.

Like many people in the first days after the disaster, Christopherson said he didn’t understand the extent of the devastation.

“Then the city came out with that map, and it was jaw dropping,” he said.

He’s gotten dozens of calls in the past two weeks from residents wondering how they can get their homes rebuilt, if he can do it for them, or if he can at least provide them with their architectural drawings. On Friday, he met with several dozen Fountaingrove residents to answer their questions about the rebuilding process.

Removing obstacles

Six months used to be a good rule of thumb for building a home once construction was underway, but now it will likely take longer, Christopherson said.

One of the keys to speeding the rebuilding effort will be to cut red tape and building fees for which Sonoma County and Santa Rosa in particular have been notorious, Christopherson said.

“We are trying to push the agenda with the city and the county and really force action,” he said.

Santa Rosa had already done a good deal of work before the fires to address its housing crisis by streamlining its permitting processes, including prioritizing affordable housing projects, investing $2.75 million to incentivize affordable housing projects and working to make granny units easier to build.

“The place where this city was when this happened set us up for success as we move forward,” said David Guhin, director of Planning and Economic Development.

Santa Rosa planning staff have been wracking their brains to find creative ways to help people who want to rebuild do so as fast as possible, Guhin said.

The City Council on Tuesday will consider creating a special zoning district that overlays the fire damaged areas and implements a variety of streamlining policies. These include allowing tiny homes or granny units to be located on properties while the main homes are being rebuilt, waiving some fees for those units and limiting the review process for homes being rebuilt on hillsides, Guhin said.

The goal is to approve plans quickly — as little as two weeks for homes that occupy the same footprint as the ones that were destroyed, less than a month for ones with significant changes, he said.

“Our staff has been looking at this from every angle,” Guhin said.

Similar streamlining is also under consideration at the county. A process that normally takes two years could be compressed into a matter of months if certain permit requirements are waived, Zane said.

Tennis Wick, director of the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department, declined to provide timelines last week. In a statement, he said he’s issued a directive to staff to approve housing permits if they are understandable to planners and clear enough to allow contractors to begin work, with “nonlife safety issues” allowed to be worked out later in the construction phase.

Labor, budget shortage seen

A huge obstacle to a swift rebuilding will be the shortage of skilled contractors and construction workers, which was already a challenge before the fires, Christopherson said.

“We’re all fighting for the same pair of hands in the ground,” he said.

The lack of workers is the main reason Keith Woods, the chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange, thinks it may take up to five years to rebuild all the homes that were lost, and twice that for the region to fully recover.

“I believe it will be a decade before Santa Rosa and much of the rest of the county is completely rebuilt and looks like its old self again with homes, neighborhoods, businesses and landscaping all in place,” Woods said.

He predicted it will be virtually impossible to entice enough workers — even with generous pay — to come here daily from the East Bay or other parts of the Bay Area. As a result, it will be critical to secure temporary housing for them, a task made more challenging because so many others need precisely the same thing, he said.

One potential location for temporary housing is the county fairgrounds, where firefighters from around the state staged during the firefight.

Another is the state-owned Highway 12 right-of-way property, which the city and county want to someday turn into a greenway between Farmers Lane and Spring Lake Regional Park. Christopherson notes the area has easy access to power and utilities.

“The need is so huge that we can’t discount anything that puts a roof over people’s heads during the period of time when we’re trying to rebuild housing,” Coursey said.

Recreational vehicles. FEMA trailers. Shipping containers converted into housing. Granny units that go up first on a lot while homes are being rebuilt. These and more are all under consideration, Coursey said.

Who will pay?

How local governments intend to pay for all these speedier services remains to be seen.

Santa Rosa has been scrupulous about documenting its emergency response costs to ensure the city gets all the FEMA reimbursement to which it is entitled, said Neil Bregman, the city’s emergency preparedness coordinator. That includes money to rebuild key public infrastructure, such as the recently completed $4 million firehouse destroyed in Fountaingrove.

But local governments could find themselves facing significant blows to their budgets at the precise time they most need resources.

Property losses are estimated at $3 billion — a sum that would cost local governments collectively some $30 million in property tax revenue, said Erick Roeser, the county’s auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector.

The most heavily damaged areas won’t feel the full force of the loss until next fiscal year, after the property values for specific areas are formally reassessed, Roeser said.

“It will be impactful, but I think what happens in future years will be more significant for the areas that are experiencing the disaster,” he said.

The faster the rebuilding, the faster the tax rolls will be replenished, he said.

The disaster’s reach also is likely to extend to sales taxes, given the many businesses destroyed, damaged or temporarily closed because of the fires. Taxes levied on hotel stays could also drop — both the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country and the Fountaingrove Inn were consumed by fire — as could taxes expected from the county’s newly regulated marijuana industry, which suffered its own blows.

“I have no idea even where to begin estimating what the impact to those revenue sources would be at this time,” Roeser said.

Lauchner, Santa Rosa’s CFO, said there’s a chance that sales tax revenue could get a bump as the recovery gains steam. When insurance checks start getting cashed and people look to replace cars, for example, Santa Rosa could benefit because it is a regional retail hub. The same is true with replacement of personal belongings like clothes, household items like washers and dryers, and building materials once homes get under construction, she said.

Long road ahead

Before the infernos broke out, Sonoma County’s economy was thriving in many ways.

The region boasted the fifth-lowest unemployment rate among California counties and the highest hotel-room occupancy rate, according to Ben Stone, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Board.

While those numbers are all but certain to change for the worse in the short term, Stone sees “a little pause” in the economy more likely than a major recession. Overall he thinks the county is well positioned to weather the storm.

“Our low unemployment rate means many of these people will find work and stay in the area,” Stone predicted. “And I think as the tourism effort, the promotion that goes on, is successful, as it has been in the past, tourists will begin to come back here.”

Sonoma County wines have a strong following nationally and internationally, and grape growers and vintners are already encouraging customers to support the area by visiting or buying Sonoma wines.

Recovery is a long road Sonoma County and Santa Rosa have only begun to travel, Stone said.

“It will not be the same county we had before. It will be a different county in some ways. There’s just no doubt,” said Stone, who lost his own Coffey Park home in the firestorm.

Homeowners will have a huge voice in what the recovery of their neighborhoods looks like, Coursey said. Some may want to replace exactly what they lost. But he hopes the city can encourage them to raise their sights.

Ideas are being shared fast and furious. Perhaps they can partner with Sonoma Clean Power to get homes with free solar panels. Maybe Tesla, whose founder Elon Musk is talking about bringing a clean power grid to Puerto Rico, could be enticed to install electric car chargers in new homes. Smaller, more energy-efficient homes may make more sense in some cases, or retail areas once occupied by Kmart could be redeveloped with housing, Coursey said. All the upgrades, thanks to public-private partnerships and the county’s generous philanthropic community, could be delivered for free, he said.

“I’m asking people to be inspired,” Coursey said. “I know that that’s hard when your home is a pile of ashes, but I can’t help but think that there may be opportunities not just to rebuild but to build better.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat. You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Keith Christopherson and family members are partners in Christopherson Properties, a small real estate brokerage and property development company.