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New settlers scoop up lots, new homes in Sonoma County’s burn zones

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Special coverage

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go here.

In Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, Bill Wallace walks a vacant lot bordered by blackened oak trees and describes his plans to build the home of his dreams.

Sporting a black T-shirt emblazoned with the name of his family’s company — West Coast Diesels of Santa Rosa — Wallace, 32, highlights some of the home’s planned features, including an entryway leading to an open living space and a second-floor master bedroom suite. He’s also installing a water filtration system to guard against toxic benzene, another of the lingering concerns, along with dead trees, of the monster fire that two years ago roared through Fountaingrove, leveling the house that formerly stood on Wallace’s lot, most of the neighborhood around it and more than 3,000 homes in the city.

A Windsor native, Wallace never imagined being able to afford living in the hillside enclave of Fountaingrove, where many homes have sweeping views of Santa Rosa and price tags to match. But the Tubbs fire, which destroyed more than 1,500 homes in the Fountaingrove area — and more than 5,300 across Sonoma County — upended the region’s long-term housing market.

In doing so, it opened up real estate options for people like Wallace and others, settlers who didn’t previously live in the burn zones but who are now plotting their futures there — in Fountaingrove, Coffey Park, Larkfield and Sonoma Valley — where property has become available after the disaster, often at a relative bargain.

The deal comes with obvious tradeoffs. The new buyers are moving in knowing that fire even now remains a threat. In Wallace’s case, the Tubbs fire was the second large inferno to roll through Fountaingrove in a half century, though in the previous case few homes existed in the area.

The cacophony of construction and the visual reminders of the devastation wrought by the 2017 fires are everywhere in the county’s burn zones.

But there are pluses, too, including in Santa Rosa, special zoning measures that allow for permitting and building on accelerated timelines. Also, for many newcomers, there is an understanding that they will play a significant role in reshaping devastated communities seeking new life after a historic disaster.

For Wallace, a licensed general contractor and diesel mechanic, building a house in Fountaingrove fulfills a quintessential tenet of the American Dream — homeownership.

“It’s my first home, so it’s special to me for that reason,” he said.

Prior to the Tubbs fire, houses on the Cannes Place cul-de-sac where Wallace is building his home were selling for $700,000 and above. Wallace estimates his total cost for the lot and construction will come out to around $550,000.

Wallace said he scoured Sonoma County prior to the fires searching in vain for a place to build his home. He found the lot in Fountaingrove on the recommendation of a friend.

On this afternoon, construction crews hammered away on houses for as far as the eye could see. Work trucks filled the winding streets, and a food truck drove by sounding its horn to attract lunchtime business.

The noise and traffic will be features of the neighborhood for years to come. As the second anniversary of the firestorm approaches, 147 Fountaingrove homes have been rebuilt, representing about 10% of the Tubbs fire’s toll for the area. The owners of more than 600 homes in the area have yet to enter the rebuild process, according to a Press Democrat analysis of city data.

Special coverage

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go here.

Wallace, who is unmarried with no children, said he’s undaunted by the bet he has placed on his future neighborhood, a hive of building activity now and likely for years to come.

“It’s temporary. It’s not going to be like this forever,” he said.

Winemaker Palmer Emmitt and his wife, Heather, also are among the new settlers in Fountaingrove. The couple, who sold a condominium in San Francisco and were renting a home in Corte Madera, are closing on a new $2.1 million home on Parker Hill Road.

The couple, who have two young daughters, had discussed moving to Sonoma County to get Emmitt, 43, out of his commute and closer to the Dry Creek Valley vineyards where much of his grapes are sourced. But Santa Rosa was not on their radar prior to the fires, he said.

However, the couple fell in love with Fountaingrove and their newly built 3,850-square-foot house, which has four bedrooms, four bathrooms and phenomenal views. Two weeks after touring the home they were in contract to buy it, Emmitt said.

The couple did not feel they got a bargain. Construction costs remain high in many neighborhoods in part due to demand for designers and builders. Fountaingrove’s larger lots and hilly terrain are other factors. On the upside, the couple’s new home includes the latest amenities and safety features.

“My wife in particular, she’s very picky in what she’s looking for in a new home,” Emmitt said.

The couple’s real estate agent, Jeff Schween, also is building a new home in Fountaingrove. He and his wife are moving across town from their home near Trione-Annadel State Park.

Schween said they paid $550,000 for the lot where they plan to build a 4,900-square-foot house. They estimate their total cost will come out to $2.6 million, an upper hand in their minds given the home that formerly occupied the space was appraised for $2.7 million.

Schween said he’s already fielded an offer to buy the house for $3.4 million. The couple has no plans to sell.

“It’s empty right now,” Schween said of Fountaingrove, “but two or three years from now will it feel like a community again? Of course.”

Wallace said he was hoping to have the foundation on his lot poured in time for winter rains. But he had to push that schedule back because of delays getting the design finished. He’s now targeting the summer of 2020 to have the house completed.

As for the specter of future megafires, Wallace figures it will be another 50 or 60 years before enough vegetation has regrown in Fountaingrove to fuel that risk. But just in case, his home will include a metal roof, sprinkler system and fire-resistant venting.

“I’m excited to have a home and share it with my girlfriend, and take it from there,” he said.

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