Two months after narrowly rejecting a developer’s plan to build new townhomes in an area twice devastated by wildfire in 53 years,
Santa Rosa is paving the way for a new 237-unit Fountaingrove project after receiving reassurances it would be built to the strictest fire codes in the state.
The City Council in December deadlocked 3-3 on a request by San Francisco-based City Ventures to rezone a vacant 40-acre Round Barn Boulevard property from business park to medium-density residential.
The Tubbs fire, which destroyed 5,130 homes in the county in early October, decimated the area, including the historic Round Barn for which the project is named.
Several council members initially expressed hesitation about putting more people in harm’s way without more details about the Round Barn Village project or a better sense of what building codes would apply.
After Fire Marshall Scott Moon outlined the strictness of fire codes in the area for new construction, and the developer committed to meeting or exceeding those standards, the council had a change of heart.
It approved the rezoning on a 6-1 vote last week, and appears poised to confirm that in a second vote today.
Councilman John Sawyer said that when a community with urban growth boundaries like Santa Rosa needs more housing, land-use changes need to happen within existing city limits to accommodate that housing, which he said can be “painful.”
“I think this is an example of the difficulty that a community goes through when it needs large amounts of housing, which we do at historic levels,” Sawyer said.
But Councilwoman Julie Combs stuck to her staunch opposition to the general plan change and rezoning, arguing there are plenty of safer places to put housing, such as downtown.
“We are setting a precedent to build more new housing in a fire hazard area when we vote today,” Combs said. “I just think we need to not put more sleeping people in a fire hazard area.”
Moon outlined how the state building codes related to fire safety have become increasingly stringent over the years, in general — and for areas like Fountaingrove in particular.
The neighborhood is in what is called the Wildland Urban Interface, an area of acknowledged fire danger that was adopted by the city in 2008 for new construction.
In the 1990s, Moon noted that the state identified some sections of east Santa Rosa as Very High Fire Hazard Severity areas.
The restrictions stemming from that, however, were “minimalistic,” focusing largely on good vegetation management practices and things like fire-resistant roofs and spark blockers on chimneys.
Then in the mid-2000s, in response to fires such as the Cedar fire in San Diego, the state took a harder look at fire-resistant building materials and designs, such as vents that limit the intrusion of embers.
Such embers can travel a mile-and-a-half ahead of a wind-driven fire, and can ignite dry material in gutters, under decks, and enter homes through vents, he said.
When the state proposed to dramatically shrink the areas of the city that it considered to be in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity zone, the city in 2008 took a conservative approach and adopted its own wildland interface zone that largely mirrored the state’s original area.