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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

There aren’t many trees left on Treehaven Court in Kenwood.

“It was like a fireball that night,” said James Lee, pointing to the Mayacamas Mountains to the east. “It just blew down into the valley and took out most of the houses and everything else in this neighborhood. We used to have a row of beautiful redwoods along the driveway. The only thing that’s improved is our view of Sugarloaf.”

One structure on the property owned by Lee and his wife, Sammie, did survive: their workshop. Inside its shadowed interior reposes a beautiful jonquil yellow 1951 GMC pickup. James had finished restoring the truck shortly before the Nuns fire broke out in October.

“We had left with our grandson with fire all around us,” said Sammie Lee. “Our neighbors saved this workshop by emptying their swimming pool. It was incredibly kind and brave of them.”

James shook his head at the recollection.

“If we had lost that workshop, I don’t know, I don’t think we would be rebuilding,” he said. “We’re both 79. I’m not sure we’d have the heart for it.”

But the couple does plan to rebuild, emphasized his wife. They’ve cleared the debris and resolved most of the geotechnical issues, as confirmed by a large divot marking the site of their former home, where toxic soil was removed.

“We’ve passed our soil tests, and we’re working on our construction plans,” said James Lee. “After that, we have to get a contractor and make sure we have enough money to do what we want to do. It’s tough, because the cost of building materials has skyrocketed since the fires, and even the best contractors can only give you a ballpark estimate. I was in construction for 35 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The Lees have been heartened to some degree by initial visits to Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department, where a “resiliency permit center” has been established to help fire victims and their contractors work through the complex and often daunting construction permit process.

“They seem to be doing a pretty good job down there,” said James Lee.

County and Santa Rosa city officials have sought to accelerate the recovery from the most destructive wildfire in state history by streamlining the permit process for people seeking to rebuild. The approach, for the most part, is helping fire survivors advance rebuilding projects and reach their objectives more quickly, according to residents with plans in the pipeline.

“I can’t say enough about the good job the people here are doing,” said Robert Anderson, an architect and a former Sebastopol mayor and planning commissioner. “Being an architect, I know my way around here, but I see them helping all these people who come in without a clue about what to do, people who never had to pull a permit before. The emphasis is on expediting the process, though it would be a mistake to think they’re giving away the farm. They’re telling people what they need and ensuring they receive their permits quickly once they’ve produced the correct documentation.”

David Lawson, a Forestville contractor whose daughter and son-in-law lost a home in the Coffey Park blaze, concurred with Anderson about the helpful intent of PRMD staffers, but maintained the agency’s “interface” with an anxious and time-constrained public is less than ideal.

“In some ways it’s a matter of culture,” said Lawson, who has formed a nonprofit group to help burned-out homeowners connect with small contractors and lending institutions. “I’m designing two homes in Coffey Park and designing and building a home on Bennett Ridge. Time is money for me — I have very little of it to waste.”

When he goes into the PRMD, also called Permit Sonoma, Lawson says he often finds there are six permit techs on duty, but “three are on computers, one’s talking to another agency official, two are on break — it can be frustrating. I find, of course, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, so I try to stay agreeable. But on the whole, I’d give them a ‘C.’ ”

Tennis Wick, the director of PRMD, acknowledged the inevitability of some bumps in the permitting process, but emphasized public feedback generally has been favorable and that his staffers are meeting their deadlines for five-day turnarounds on permits. That’s all predicated on applicants having their documents in order, Wick said.

“We want people to know that (regulators) and the engineering and contracting communities are working closely together to make things happen as quickly as possible,” Wick said. “As far as (fire victims) go, it’s important that they come into the resiliency permit center even before they have a home design so we can start helping them. We’re here to make things as easy for them as possible.”

Wick noted that permit issuance tends to move in pulses, as evidenced by the regularly updated statistics on the sonomacountyrecovers.org website.

“For example, some residents of Mark West Estates may be going with a group builder option, and you’ll see that reflected in an uptick on the website,” Wick said. “(Issued permits) will drop back at some point as the trend shifts to individual builders.”

At this juncture, said Wick, the primary impediment to speedy permit approval is a shortfall in qualified architects and engineers, especially geotechnical engineers. Most if not all of the nearly 5,300 homes that burned countywide will have to go through a geotechnical review before permit consideration, said Wick.

“Given the shortfall in expertise, there’s only so much you can do,” Wick said. “People from outside geotech firms are coming in, but they’re hampered by the fact that our soil types are so diverse here. Typically, geotechnical engineers are familiar only with the soils in their own regions. Their work is specific to their locales, so it can be very hard for them to come in cold to a new area and evaluate the geology and make reliable recommendations for anchoring homes to the earth.”

David Guhin, the director of the Department of Planning and Economic Development for the city of Santa Rosa, said the numbers confirm his agency’s success in helping residents rebuild. Officials have targeted six fire-ravaged neighborhoods for expedited permit approval. During a recent interview, Guhin logged on to the city’s reconstruction site (srcity.org/2675/Rebuilding) to check figures. More than 3,000 of the burned homes were inside city limits.

“This site is updated every 30 minutes,” Guhin said. “So right now we have 367 homes in plan or review or under construction. That’s about the same number of permits issued for all of last year. We’ve been pulling out all the stops to make this as seamless as possible for people, and I think we’ve been fairly successful.”

Guhin said his agency must adjust to unforeseen issues on a daily basis. Examples include jawboning bankers who balk at issuing loans; adjusting established setback rules to allow for the streamlined approval of updated home designs; and working up a temporary water filtration system to address Fountaingrove’s benzene contamination problem, allowing homeowners to proceed with reconstruction while a permanent solution is implemented.

“We’re also encouraging innovative approaches, including manufactured homes and second units,” said Guhin. “We’ve had some unexpected curves, and we anticipate more of them. That said, the 367 homes now going through permitting represent 10 percent of all the homes lost in Santa Rosa from the fires, and we expect those numbers to increase dramatically over the next few months. We’ll be bringing on extra people to keep turnaround times in check. We have a hundred homes now under or ready for construction, and we give their owners and their contractors the credit. They’re the trailblazers, and they’ve helped us write the playbook that we’ll use for the 2,900 homes that are going to follow.”

Up in Fountaingrove, Brian Cameron is building two of those homes — one for a friend, and the second for his pal’s neighbor next door. The foundations are in and framing is about to commence. Cameron — who juggles vocations as a contractor and a pilot for American Airlines — said the two owners should be able to move into their new digs within 14 months.

“As far as the permitting goes, it was a pleasure,” said Cameron as he switched generators to ensure the power tools of his crew were kept buzzing, howling and snarling. “I started these projects one week after the fire. Two months later we had our plans finalized and we walked into (Santa Rosa’s) resiliency center and presented them. Five days later, we had their comments back. We made the necessary additions, resubmitted, and two days later our permits were ready. We have another project with the county, and that’s going well too. Everybody has been super helpful.”

Cameron does have one complaint, however, taking issue with county officials who claim they are amenable to creative solutions. Cameron is working with an Oregon company to build homes from shipping containers. The techniques have been highly refined, he said, and the homes can be constructed in modular fashion for a fraction of the cost and time required for typical homes. He has applied for permits for one such structure.

“It’s for a house made from six containers, with three bedrooms and two baths,” he said. “But it was like hitting a wall. I had plans drawn and submitted them, and it was 13 weeks before I got the markups back. I redrew the plans according to the markups, and they threw it right back at me. It’s clear they just want it all to go away. They say they want creative solutions, but when you give them something truly creative, they reject it.”

Despite such conflicts, the progress on permits seems undeniable. And at the end of each such paper chase, something palpable and precious awaits: a home, with all the emotional power that implies.

Back on Treehaven Court, Sammie Lee watched a flock of cliff swallows soar and dip in the sky.

“I feel bad for them,” she said. “They’re looking for their home. We had six birdhouses set up here, and every year they’d always go back to the same one to nest. Now, they don’t know what to do. But I’m hoping we’ll all have a place to live here before too long. We just have to take it one step at a time.”

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