Fountaingrove construction keeps pace during pandemic
Pat Avila has to remind herself some days how strange the past few years have been. The real estate agent can remember selling lots when Fountaingrove was just taking shape as a set of subdivisions in the hills of northeast Santa Rosa more than 30 years ago.
Over the past two years, she has watched as the nearly four dozen homes in her neighborhood, Oaks at Fountaingrove, were rebuilt, including her house, which was finished in February. She has invited over friends for outside gatherings on the porch, adhering to coronavirus precautions.
“You have to get your mind straight to realize: This was all gone,“ Avila, 75, said.
The pandemic has posed some inconveniences for rebuilding homeowners in Fountaingrove, where about 1,600 homes were claimed in the Tubbs fire in 2017. Avila hasn’t been able to have a solar technician come into her new home to hook up her rooftop panels, for instance.
But construction kept going, and it appears to have continued at a fairly strong clip in Fountaingrove since the mid-March shutdown, which did not apply to rebuilds in burn zones.
“Construction never stopped here,” Avila said. “In fact, they had more people on for a while.“
Avila’s house was one of more than 3,000 Santa Rosa homes lost to the Tubbs fire, which set parts of the city on dramatically different paths to recovery.
Compared to the flatter, more compact Coffey Park, where more than 1,300 homes were lost and 900 homes have been rebuilt and almost every lot features some level of rebuild activity, recovery in Fountaingrove has been protracted. About 350 homes have been rebuilt, 562 are under construction, and builders have submitted plans and received permits to rebuild an additional 134.
Still, about 100 Fountaingrove rebuilds have finished since February, the last month before the pandemic officially hit Sonoma County.
The pandemic’s implications for construction in burn zones were initially unclear, said David Guhin, an assistant city manager. But in Fountaingrove, the city saw the most inspections since the peak of Coffey Park’s 2019 activity, and Guhin has heard reports that some streets have been difficult even to navigate due to the level of construction traffic.
“We didn’t see a grinding halt,” he said. “It was more of a pause and then continued right back up.”
Planners have continued to process permits virtually, and the city has imposed a rule that inspections are only conducted in empty homes, Guhin said.
“If we got to a house and people didn’t vacate the house, we would just leave,” he said. “People got on board with the protocols pretty quick.”
Avila was quick to praise her builder, Farrow Construction, for her smooth rebuild. The firm’s other rebuild projects in the area appeared to be advancing since March, she said.
Others, however, are having greater difficulty with their projects. Laura Roney who is rebuilding in the Skyfarm area just north of Avila’s neighborhood, had hoped to move in by early May, but pandemic-related issues with construction have forced her to postpone until late July.
“We’re not back to normal and we’re not going to be back to normal,” Roney said. “Very frustrated, but I’m doing everything I can to get it done.”
Roney, a former clinical microbiologist, said that at the outset of the pandemic some workers initially hesitated to return to her job site, which she is managing as a newly minted contractor, overseeing the rebuilds of two neighbors as well.
Under the emergency order issued by Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer, rebuilding in fire zones was exempt from the shutdown, and contractors like Roney have since implemented safety protocols, all while acknowledging that construction is a job that cannot be worked remotely and carries with it the risks of close contact with others, potentially spreading infection.
After some of their early fears subsided, Roney’s workers came back.
“Usually, in construction, every day is another problem,” Roney said. The pandemic “just compounds everything.”
Daniel O’Donnell, who lives in a rebuilt Rincon Ridge home on Fountaingrove’s east side, shared a more optimistic outlook on the region’s recovery. Last year, he moved into the area from a home near Trione-Annadel State Park.
His new home was the first to be completed on his block, but others have been finished and neighbors have moved in on both sides of him.
“The crews were really railing during the pandemic to get these people back in there,” said O’Donnell, a marriage and family therapist.
The landscape remains stark around him, devoid of the trees that graced his former neighborhood. But he finds promise in the progress he’s seen.
“There’s a lot work still to be done,” he said, “but we’re excited to be a part of this.”
You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @wsreports.