Pepperwood Preserve, Mark West preschool seek donations

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This story is part of a monthly series chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage


The owners, students and families at Mark West Community Preschool have a $2 million dream.

That's what it will cost to build back the school obliterated by the Tubbs fire in 2017, making it bigger and better than before on their 1-acre Larkfield property off Old Redwood Highway just north of Mark West Springs Road.

The design donated by EcoSteel of Orange County, calls for a sleek 5,000-square-foot structure made of steel and other fire-resistant materials with solar power, rainwater catchment systems, heated flooring and natural light pouring through glass walls, windows and skylights.

It will replace the 3,000-square-foot wood frame building built in 1965 that owners Renee Whitlock-Hemsouvanh and Jenny Kenyon bought in 2013.

A $630,000 insurance payment covered most of their mortgage, leaving the private school to raise the whole construction cost of $2 million.

“It's a daunting number,” said Kenyon, who lost her own home.

They have raised just $250,000 so far and hope to open the new facility in June 2020.

Help came last week with a $25,000 grant from the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation that supports literacy, education, health and human services, the environment, arts and culture. Last year, the foundation added fire relief to its goals.

First 5 Sonoma County, a public agency that draws revenue from a statewide tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products, previously contributed a $100,000 facilities grant.

California Community Lender Inc., a nonprofit created to help with post-fire rebuilding, has agreed to provide the preschool with a low-interest loan to cover most of the rebuilding cost and must be repaid.

The school, which serves children up to 5 years old, has held a few fundraisers, but Kenyon said the campaign is moving in “baby steps.”

Early childhood education is in demand in Sonoma County, she said, and Mark West preschool is a testament to the local support, having opened in January 2014 with 12 students and by August having 120 children enrolled.

The wildfire forced the school to relocate to a temporary site near Coddingtown Mall, where it can only accommodate 80 students ages 2 to 5, Kenyon said.

In the new facility, it will once again have room for all ages up to 5.

For more information on the rebuilding or to make a donation, go to


Pepperwood rebuilding in style

Roaring down the Mark West Canyon, the Tubbs fire scorched nearly all of Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,200-acre tract in the Mayacamas Mountains northeast of Santa Rosa.

The fire killed 22 people and destroyed more than 4,600 homes, including two wood-frame homes and a barn at Pepperwood that dated to the 1950s.

Now the nonprofit organization is poised to rebuild in a style that matches its commitment to conservation science and stewardship of the bucolic wild lands under its care since 2005.

Pepperwood has plans drawn, county permits pulled and a contractor ready to go to work, but there's a $1.25 million catch. Insurance is expected to provide about $3.75 million, enough for replicas of the lost structures, while the cost of the modern, sustainable, fire-resistant replacements is about $5 million.

The new residences will have concrete-paneled exteriors, mineral wool insulation, clay plaster interior walls and steel roofs. The materials are not fire-proof, but are “ignition-proof,” meaning they will not catch fire, said Andy Bannister, chief executive and founder of Earthtone Construction of Sebastopol, the builder.

“We felt like we needed to be an example,” said Lisa Micheli, president of the nonprofit foundation that operates the facility off Porter Creek Road. “To do it greener, cleaner, better and more fire-resilient.”

Eager to get started, Micheli said she nonetheless wants to wait until the fundraising campaign - “Rising from the Ashes” - has secured half of its goal, about $625,000, before work begins.

“People want to invest in the project,” she said, and Pepperwood wants donors to be on hand for the groundbreaking.

Marge Shurgot, the foundation's director of advancement, said last week fundraising is close to the halfway mark.

Every year, Pepperwood raises about $2.5 million to cover operating expenses, with roughly equal amounts from three sources: individual donors, foundations and fees for service, including government contracts.

“Rising from the Ashes” marks the first time Pepperwood has raised money for specific improvements.

The new buildings will be “the foundation for the next century at Pepperwood,” Micheli said. “We are in it for the long haul.”

For information on donating to Pepperwood Preserve, go to

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage



No end in sight for construction

A year and a half after she selected a contractor to begin rebuilding the house she lost in the October 2017 Tubbs fire, Lynette Kronick has nothing to show for it. Her burned lot on Lavender Lane in the Mark West neighborhood remains vacant.

“My roommate has a 3-year-old granddaughter,” she said. “I'd like to have this house built before she graduates from high school.”

That's why in April she fired Chiaramonte Construction & Plumbing Inc., a Central Valley builder who signed contracts with her and about 40 Santa Rosa-area homeowners to rebuild their houses destroyed in the devastating wildfire.

Now, they are a group of disgruntled customers going through the agony of dealing with an out-of-town contractor they say has fallen well short of meeting their expectations. They claim Chiaramonte has blown deadlines, broken promises on construction start dates, made many mistakes, left their homes unfinished and in some cases improperly charged them for unfinished work.

On May 10, Chiaramonte Construction became the first contractor to be accused by fire survivors of negligence and fraud during the massive rebuild underway in fire-ravaged sections of Santa Rosa.

Robert Richner and his wife, whose Mark West Estates home burned, filed a lawsuit against Chiaramonte in Sonoma County Superior Court, alleging fraud and negligent misrepresentation regarding their home construction contract with the Tulare company.

The following week, the California Contractors State License Board opened a preliminary inquiry to assess the allegations, which include fraud, abandoning a construction project and lack of reasonable diligence.

“Recovering from the fires has been so hard on people as it is,” Richner said. The “debacle” with Chiaramonte, he said, “has been salt in the wound.”

After losing their Larkfield house in the fire, Brian and Jacqueline Scott also turned to Chiaramonte to build them a new one. What followed, they say, was a long series of mistakes and delays. In late February, after five weeks during which no one worked on the inside of their house, Jacqueline Scott was excited to drop by and find laborers at work. Then she realized they were using her living room to paint someone else's cabinets.

In the Mark West-Larkfield area, 23 burned homes have been rebuilt, 198 are under construction and permits have been issued for 70 homes, according to Permit Sonoma. Anthony Chiaramonte, a project manager and son of the company president, said the construction firm came up to Sonoma County to help fire survivors get back into homes.

“We didn't go up there to take advantage of the situation,” Chiaramonte said. He called the disgruntled customers' allegations against his family's construction company “false.”

To build her new Mark West house, Kronick claimed Chiaramonte quoted her a price of $245 per square foot. Other builders' quotes came in at nearly twice that amount. “When I reflect on this,” she said, “it was all too good to be true.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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