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Fire-scorched Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa focal point of debate over rebuilding

Rincon Ridge in Fountaingrove, Wednesday Oct. 25, 2017 in Santa Rosa, burned by the Tubbs fire. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

KEVIN MCCALLUM,

As Santa Rosa sets its sights on rebuilding following the deadly wildfires this month, the city has sent homeowners a clear message that it will not stand in their way.

Anyone who owned a home in the city has a right to rebuild it in the same place, as long as modern building codes are followed, officials have said.

But some are asking whether it’s wise to let one neighborhood in particular — the hillside enclave of Fountaingrove — be rebuilt as it was, given that it has now burned to the ground twice in 53 years and wasn’t built according to city rules to begin with.

The Tubbs fire, which roared over the hills from Calistoga on Oct. 8, claimed hundreds of homes in the upscale neighborhood.

“I hesitate to even suggest this,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, a former Fountaingrove resident who lost her Oakmont home in the Nuns fire to the south. “But many people are starting to say, why are we — and this is in the city’s realm — why are we thinking about permitting the rebuilding of Fountaingrove?”

The question is not an idle one. The cleanup of debris left by the destruction of 2,900 homes citywide in the Tubbs and Nuns fires is already underway. If it goes according to plan, homesites could be ready to rebuild in a matter of a few months.

City officials and most of the City Council have adopted a full-speed-ahead approach, seeking to give hope to residents by prioritizing their building permits, waiving fees and giving broad new authority to staff to approve permits swiftly by limiting public review.

Those moves have been embraced by the development community. But others are asking whether the city, by moving so fast, might miss its chance to rebuild smarter and safer.

Resident Marsha Taylor told the City Council she felt the city was suffering a kind of post-traumatic stress from the devastation, and urged patience.

“Putting our community in a fire-prone area has jeopardized all of us and frightened us horribly,” said Taylor, a retired teacher. “We need to slow down, we need to be thoughtful and we need to look at the urban planning mistakes that we have made in the past and rethink them now, and not repeat those errors over and over again.”

Footprint of fire

One of the most striking images to emerge from the aftermath of the deadly wildfires is not a photograph but a map comparing the footprint of the Tubbs fire with the epic 1964 Hanly fire.

The map, produced by Cal Fire and reproduced by the city of Santa Rosa, shows just how closely the two fires mirrored one another.

The main difference between the two is how much farther west the wind-whipped Tubbs fire traveled from its origin outside Calistoga, racing overnight through rural estates and reaching into established urban neighborhoods on the Santa Rosa Plain.

The other big difference: In the five decades between the two blazes, thousands of homes had been added to that landscape.

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The Hanly fire was started Sept. 19, 1964, by a deer hunter who flicked his cigarette behind a roadside tavern near Mount St. Helena. It is seared into local memory both as a terrifying event, and a disaster largely averted through a successful firefight.

The blaze was ultimately stopped within yards of the former county hospital on Chanate Road. And unlike the Tubbs fire, which killed 22 people in Sonoma County, the Hanly fire resulted in no deaths.

By the time the 1,400-acre Fountain Grove Ranch was being eyed in the 1970s for development of commercial and light-industrial uses, plus hundreds of luxury homes, there was little discussion about the fire danger posed by hillside homes.

The focus instead was on high-tech jobs that Hewlett-Packard would bring to the area with a 200-acre campus; the boost to “quality of life” in the region; the safeguards in store for historic structures like the Round Barn (itself destroyed in the Tubbs fire); and the annexation and service costs for taxpayers in the city of 50,000.

Similarly, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when a second phase of development on 600 adjacent acres was being considered, the attention focused not on the proposed homes themselves, but on the planned road to reach them.

The majority of the discussion around Fountaingrove II, a proposal for several hundred hillside homes in the southern portion of the former cattle ranch, revolved around the cost, alignment, speed limits and wisdom of the 2.4-mile extension of Fountain Grove Parkway from Highway 101 over to Rincon Valley. The roadway, which city planners hoped would improve traffic flow, eventually cost $23 million.

While fire danger wasn’t top-of-mind when Fountaingrove II was approved in 1992, the fire danger in those hills was clear to the developers, said Curt Nichols, a principal in Carlile-Macy, the civil engineering firm that designed most of the neighborhood’s infrastructure.

The Oakland hills firestorm, which killed 25 people and destroyed 2,800 homes, happened in 1991, and much work was done to ensure the Fountaingrove area was developed with fire safety in mind, Nichols said.

“Everyone went into it with their eyes wide open,” said Nichols, who lost his own home in the Coffey Park neighborhood to the Tubbs fire.

Earlier subdivision designs that proposed lots of dead-end streets were revised to improve evacuation routes, he said.

Fire maps showed danger

The city also was very aware of the fire danger in the area. After the Oakland hills fire, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring Cal Fire to work with cities to identify dangerous fire zones. Fountaingrove was one of the areas deemed a “very high fire hazard severity zone,” said Scott Moon, the city’s fire marshal.

That resulted in the city imposing a series of code restrictions on home construction in the area, requiring such things as safe roof materials and banning outright wood shake roofs, Moon said. Later requirements addressed safeguards including mesh screen over vents — to keep out wind-whipped embers — and the construction of eaves, he said.

The early fire-risk maps of Fountaingrove were not available for review last week, but when they were redrawn in 2007, Cal Fire published drafts depicting a large swath of the area, particularly homes close to open space, in bright red for “very high fire hazard severity zone.”

Furthermore, virtually all the homes in Fountaingrove and Montecito Heights were depicted in orange for “high fire hazard zone.” Areas of Skyhawk, Bennett Valley, Rincon Valley, Oakmont and Wild Oak — all of which were either evacuated or had homes destroyed in the Tubbs and Nuns fires — have areas listed as high danger and very high danger.

The city in 2008 adopted a local, modified version of that Cal Fire map.

Firewise community gone

Official maps aside, residents of the approximately 500 homes in Fountaingrove appear to have been well aware of the fire danger in their area.

Homeowners paid $67 per month in dues to an association whose mission was, in part, to reduce that danger on 200 acres of open space in the area. The association spent nearly $3 million since 2009 to reduce weeds, remove brush and dead or dying trees, maintain fire breaks and promote fire-resistant native plant species such as manzanita.

In 2016 alone, the association reported removing a total of 199 trees for fire-control purposes. The work earned a large swath of Fountaingrove certification as a Firewise USA community by the National Fire Protection Association.

Now, in the wake of the near-complete destruction in the area, the open space association board is urging homeowners to continue paying their dues and has made it clear it intends to support rebuilding efforts.

“The picturesque scenery and natural landscape is what attracted most of us to our neighborhood and we need to restore it as quickly as possible for both the special place it was, as well as to ensure our financial investments are recovered and continue to grow,” the board wrote to residents following the fire.

Legal right to rebuild?

Santa Rosa officials say there is little question that people who lost their homes have a vested legal right to rebuild, though City Attorney Sue Gallagher allowed that there “may be some limitations for safety.”

If, for example, a mudslide makes the underlying ground unstable, rebuilding rights can be revoked, she said.

Gallagher said she’s not aware of situations where fire risk would stand in the way of a resident rebuilding.

Mayor Chris Coursey strongly backed that position at the council meeting last week.

“People have a right to rebuild what they had, if that’s what they want to do,” Coursey said. “I don’t think we have any business getting in their way, legal or otherwise.”

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt has voiced a similar stance supporting residents’ private property rights.

But Councilwoman Julie Combs sounded unconvinced the city should simply allow homes to be rebuilt as they were in all circumstances. She expressed concern that homes would be cleared for reconstruction before new fire safety standards were put in place to protect them.

“I am very concerned to have places that have just burned down be built in a fire hazard area not meet the new codes that come from our learning from this incident,” Combs said.

She failed, however, to get her colleagues to change an emergency measure granting the city’s planning director the power to approve hillside development applications — a measure intended to speed rebuilding.

Ridgeline redux?

The rebuilding effort, however, faces another crux arising from original designs: Many of the homes were constructed on ridgelines in violation of city policies.

Residents across Santa Rosa were outraged in the late 1990s when large homes began sprouting up on highly visible slopes at the top of Rincon Ridge. The city later acknowledged that it failed to follow its own policies meant to protect hillsides. In 2004, in part because of the debacle, the city passed a more stringent hillside building ordinance.

Judy Marley is a Brush Creek Road resident who now, because of the fire has a clear view of the ridgeline properties in Fountaingrove. She said she knows people who lost their homes in the fire and it feels “a bit awkward” to question their right to rebuild.

Still, Marley said she feels even all these years later that “we were tricked” by the city when it approved the construction decades ago. She cited the paucity of community debate over the issue at the time and the defense put forward by officials when the homes started going up.

“It’s too late,” she recalled them saying.

“I still feel that if housing is to be rebuilt there that we need to have some kind of containment,” she said, such as height restrictions or screening. “We’re kind of in a no-win situation here.”

Who decides?

Much of the debate over Fountaingrove’s reconstruction could come down to wrangling over who is empowered to sign off on development.

Delegating that power in cases of hillside development to the city’s staff, instead of its appointed boards and commissions, gave Combs pause.

Most homes in Fountaingrove precede the city’s 2004 hillside ordinance, so they would be out of compliance with it through no fault of their own.

Normally, someone seeking to replace a home or business would be able to rebuild them to their original planning standards, provided construction occurs within a short period of time. But in this case, because of the sheer volume of homes destroyed, the city plans to give residents up to three years to rebuild a home if it is similar to the original, though some new building standards will apply, said Gallagher, the city attorney.

That means property owners seeking to rebuild their hillside homes in the same footprint during the three-year window would be exempt from the hillside rule, which is intended to protect viewsheds on slopes of more than 10 percent. It calls for measures meant to integrate houses with existing vegetation or build in levels that conform to the landscape.

After the three-year grace period, homes would have to comply with the current tougher, hillside development rules.

To allow for some public input, council members authorized a compromise that will give residents a 10-day notice before the city planning director approves plans for redesigned homes that require hillside development permits or design review. Such projects could still be appealed to the Planning Commission within 10 days of approval.

Innumerable other factors could impact the ability of Fountaingrove homeowners to rebuild. Payout rates from insurance companies are likely to be a key component for many residents. Another is the cost of future coverage given the possibility that insurers could raise their rates or decide not to cover homes in the area at all.

New homes in Fountaingrove will also be required to add sprinkler systems, a challenge in an area with low water pressure.

Coursey, the Santa Rosa mayor, said he’s open to a range of ideas to rebuild in ways that make the city better, including incentives to increase energy efficiency and improve fire safety. He wants the city to explore denser housing in suitable places, such as the site of the destroyed Kmart building west of Fountaingrove, on the opposite side of Highway 101.

Whether Fountaingrove should be rebuilt and how that reconstruction occurs are more questions for individual homeowners than the city, he said.

“I do believe that there are places were people shouldn’t build houses, and arguably Rincon Ridge was one of those places,” Coursey said.

But for a city with so much work ahead of it, he doesn’t see much value in refighting the battles of the past.

“That ship has sailed,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.