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At long last, Coffey Park’s grand entry nearly complete

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For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County, go here.

Men with their excavators showed up first to scrape the lots, preparing them for planting. Mounds of mulch then appeared.

At long last, landscaping soon will be completed on the 200-square-foot tracts on either side of Hopper Avenue, where it crosses Coffey Lane, a landmark known to locals as the Entryway. Ever since the Tubbs fire leveled much of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood in October 2017, this intersection has been a gathering place for residents to show their unity and resolve.

It is taking shape as the neighborhood around the Entryway returns. Nearly 900 of the more than 1,400 homes destroyed in Coffey Park by the Tubbs fire have now been rebuilt and another 419 are under construction or in the permitting process.

Finally, two years and nine months after the Tubbs inferno, the physical appearance of the Entryway will match its symbolic significance. Going for a “native California” feel, landscape designer Sabrina Swanson-Schneckloth chose to brighten the crossroads with plants such as Leucodendron, which she described as “a wild child, super colorful and fun,” the Thumbergia (“radiates joy with each bright orange flower”), and the Lomondra Breeze (“sounds like the ocean when the wind blows though it”).

As a counterweight to these selections, the eastern end of the Entryway is bounded by large boulders intended to evoke the granite of the eastern Sierra. The stones also serve to symbolize permanence and resilience ― to send the message “that we’re not going anywhere,” said Swanson-Schneckcloth, a Coffey Park resident herself.

The boulders are apt for another reason. Even compared to some other difficult projects undertaken by Coffey Strong ― street lights, the Hopper Wall, the neighborhood park — progress on the Entryway has been, well, rocky.

It didn’t help that for the longest time, no one could figure who owned the land on which it stands.

With debris removal nearly complete in early 2018, city officials were asked when they intended to tear down and replace the scorched and blackened Hopper Wall. It turned that, even though the city had been maintaining it for years, that wall belonged to the homeowners on whose property it sat.

“In 2008, the city was basically bankrupt, so they took the wall, the sidewalks and vegetation behind the wall on Hopper, and gave those to the homeowners,” said Anne Barbour, vice president of the neighborhood support group Coffey Strong.

Nor, it turned out, were common lots A and B ― the Entryway ― property of Santa Rosa, even though the city had long maintained them.

The two tracts are “common area parcels” set aside for the use of everyone in a subdivision, said Gabe Osburn, deputy director of the city’s department of engineering development. Normally, such parcels are owned and maintained by the city, or by a homeowners association.

“Neither one of those happened in this particular situation,” Osburn said. The original developer, a company called Oceanis, neither deeded the parcels to the city nor formed a homeowners association. Those lots were “abandoned, orphaned,” Coffey Strong President Steve Rahmn said. They were “literally no-man’s-land,” Swanson-Schneckloth added.

What it boiled down to was Coffey Park residents, rather than the city, would be on the hook for all upgrades and improvements to the Entryway.

They got to work, and got lots of help. A group of builders chipped in to replace the burned Coffey Park sign. Recology Sonoma Marin removed and disposed of debris. The United Way of Wine Country donated $25,000. The Christian Family Fellowship church, six blocks east on Hopper, kicked in another $6,000. At the time, Swanson-Schneckloth worked at Santa Rosa’s Firma Design Group, and donated her landscaping services, as did other people in her office. (She now works at Simmonds & Associates, a Bay Area landscape architect.)

It was Swanson-Schneckloth’s idea to plant five cherry trees on the north side of Hopper, representing the five lives lost in Coffey Park in the Tubbs blaze. Those trees were put in the ground in time for the remembrance ceremony at the Entryway, one year after the fire.

To be sure, the Entryway project encountered headwinds. There were differences of opinion on the design. Coffey Strong Vice President Bill Northcroft, who’d spearheaded the project, resigned in December 2019.

After using United Way grant to put in hardscape and irrigation, money was short. To get the project across the finish line, Coffey Strong relied on proceeds from bingo games, T-shirt sales and small donations. The group did everything but go through its sofa cushions looking for spare change. Finally, financing was complete.

Coffey Strong still must pay for water and maintenance of the vegetation, moving forward.

“Someone has to,” Barbour said. “Our neighborhood looks great, so our Entryway needs to reflect that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

Special Coverage

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County, go here.

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