Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park residents flummoxed by burned walls
Kevin Johnson feels like he lost a home and inherited a wall.
On the back edge of his burned Coffey Park property sits a 5-foot-high wall of wood and concrete, an adobe-colored barrier separating his residential neighborhood from a four-lane stretch of Hopper Avenue.
Johnson and other neighbors say they always thought that wall and its twin on the north side of Hopper near Coffey Lane belonged to the city of Santa Rosa. But soon after residents began to worry the concrete structures had been weakened by last fall’s wildfire, they were shocked to learn that while the city maintains the walls, they actually belong to the property owners.
Now, as many residents look forward to rebuilding their homes this spring, they are flummoxed about what to do with the sagging and cracked backyard walls extending the length of nearly five football fields.
“You’re going to put brand new houses up and have that wall in the background?” asked Johnson, a technician for a precision measurement company who has lived nine years on Hemlock Street. He doubted the neighbors on their own could agree to a common solution, and allowing some residents to tear down the concrete portion on their individual properties “would be a mess.”
A contractor recently gave Johnson an estimate of $300,000 to replace the walls, or roughly $7,900 for each of the 38 affected property owners on both sides of Hopper.
Many neighbors don’t have the money, he said, and that estimate doesn’t even include the cost of knocking down the existing concrete-and-wood walls, and carting away the debris.
The walls are a glitch in the recovery efforts in Coffey Park, a neighborhood of single-family tract houses that took a direct hit from the most destructive wildfire in U.S. history. Four of Sonoma County’s 24 fire-related deaths occurred in Coffey Park and a quarter of the more than 5,100 homes lost in the October wildfires were in the neighborhood.
The walls were built four decades ago when subdivisions arose on both sides of Hopper. The fire burned all but two of the 38 involved properties.
“We just always assumed it was the city’s wall,” said Janet Reisner, who has lived 21 years on Hemlock and recalls the city routinely coming out to paint over any graffiti.
Her insurance policy won’t cover replacing the structure, she said. If she and her husband must pay out of pocket, “it will be a huge hit.”
Residents also wonder whether the wall’s fate might hinder efforts to begin reconstructing their homes this spring.
“We don’t want to be in the middle of our builds and then have this be an issue,” said Anne Barbour, who has lived on Hemlock for 28 years.
She said two burned lots on Hemlock are in the process of being sold. It’s unclear whether the new buyers know they are also purchasing a section of wall.
Some neighbors also are concerned about the integrity of the walls and the legal liability involved if they aren’t removed. And several questioned whether a simple wooden fence would provide enough protection against the potential of a car crash on a long, wide stretch of Hopper.
A few noted the Army Corps of Engineers provided debris cleanup in Coffey Park and asked why the agency didn’t also remove the wall.
In response, David Guhin, the city’s director of planning and economic development, maintained the walls belongs to the property owners, and the federal agency wasn’t asked to remove additional structures such as walls or swimming pools.
“It wasn’t part of the Corps’ charge,” he said.
Guhin has offered to bring together a small group of city staff members and neighbors to try and find a solution.
Asked about safety, he wrote Thursday by email that city staff made a visual inspection “and preliminarily found the walls safe to remain but recommend further investigation.”
He added that much of the wooden trim was burned.
Jeff Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood rebuilding group, initially expressed doubt on getting so many property owners to agree to the fate of the walls.
“To be honest, I don’t know if there can be a solution that is provided for this under the circumstances,” he said Tuesday.
However, by Thursday Okrepkie was seeking an engineer to donate services and determine whether the walls remain structurally sound.
If so, he said, the damaged portions could be repaired and the various sections spruced up, perhaps with murals, so the walls don’t look so “dilapidated.”
He acknowledged that approach might be imperfect but at least would reduce the stress of people focused on rebuilding their homes.
Okrepkie predicted this won’t be the last problem to pop up during the recovery efforts.
“There’s so much that’s unforeseen out there,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @rdigit.