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Form Rincon Ridge West, Crown Hill Drive is busy with new construction from the devastation wrought by the 2017 Tubbs fire, Thursday, Jan 9, 2020 as fog hugs Foutnaingrove above the Santa Rosa Plain at sunrise. Memories of the 2017 wildfires and 2019's Kincade fire were on some voters' minds as they weighed Measure G, a half-cent sales tax to bolster firefighting resources. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

'Limbo for the next couple of years': Fountaingrove's uphill path to recovery

More than two years after the Tubbs fire, Fountaingrove has more vacant lots than rebuilt homes. The question hangs over the city: How long will it take the neighborhood to rebound?

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K aren Erickson bets she could name all her former neighbors on Bent Tree Place in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove area. She was one of the original residents of the short, tree-lined street, having moved there in 1990, about the time the subdivision off Parker Hill Road was developed. She forged close bonds with neighbors, especially fellow longtime residents. She and her husband, Joel, had no intention of leaving.

“I was a block captain before they had block captains,” Erickson said.

Her home was one of nearly 1,600 in the Fountaingrove area destroyed in 2017 by the Tubbs fire, which altogether leveled more than 4,600 homes, including more than 3,000 inside Santa Rosa. Twenty-two people died in the fire, including two who were overrun by flames in Fountaingrove.

The Ericksons fought with their insurer over coverage and discovered crews over-excavated their lot during debris removal, struggles that delayed their plans to rebuild. And their project — a dream home with a big pool, basketball court and exercise room — now appears too expensive for the couple to break ground, Erickson said. Builders are scarce, and their planned custom home and amenities make for a complicated and costly rebuild even under favorable market conditions, she said.

“We just have to wait it out. We just can’t pay $400, $500 per square foot,” said the 65-year-old retired physical therapist and community volunteer. “That would be our retirement money.”

The Ericksons’ lot is among 605 parcels inside Santa Rosa where no rebuilding activity has occurred since the 2017 fires, according to city records. More than 80% of those lots are in Fountaingrove, which also holds the vast majority of vacant, burned lots in Santa Rosa that have been sold since the Tubbs fire.

The patchwork of barren expansive lots in the hilly, upscale neighborhood reflects the daunting obstacles for recovery in the area.

Construction costs are substantially higher than in the flatland neighborhoods closer to Highway 101, including Coffey Park, where the rebuild is speeding toward completion.

After the Tubbs fire, hundreds of Fountaingrove homeowners also realized their insurance coverage was dramatically inadequate, with payouts that fell far short of covering expensive rebuilds. That realization sunk hopes of a swift return for many, including the Ericksons.

And for some, seeing the Kincade fire rush up to the city limits last fall — two years after the Tubbs fire laid waste to swaths of the city — added new reason to pause their plans. The recent blazes rekindled stories of the 1964 Hanly fire, which traced a nearly identical path to the Tubbs at a time when most of Fountaingrove was undeveloped.

Will Abrams, who lost a home off Riebli Road just north of city limits, is looking for more certainty — against the risk of insurance losses, planned PG&E blackouts and utility-sparked wildfires — before he forges ahead on building a new home.

“Nobody is expecting silver bullets,” said Abrams, who is living in the Skyhawk subdivision on the edge of Rincon Valley. “We should take every small step forward we can. But we need to see a trend of making things better for residents.”

Still others have pulled up stakes from Fountaingrove and sold their lots: At least 155 burned parcels in the area have changed hands since the fires, a turnover that’s roughly triple the number of sales of idle lots in Coffey Park.

Viewed from the air, the fallout is clear: Far more vacant parcels dot the landscape in Fountaingrove than any other burned part of the city. In Coffey Park, save for about four dozen vacant lots, nearly all 1,400 homes lost in the Tubbs fire will be completed or nearing completion by this year.

Fountaingrove will cross the halfway mark once all homes under construction are finished, but it won’t catch up anytime soon. Some say it could resemble the prolonged recovery that played out after the Tunnel fire in 1991 decimated the hills of Oakland and Berkeley.

More than two years after the worst disaster to befall Sonoma County, the question hangs over Santa Rosa: How long will it take Fountaingrove to fully rebound?

“Nobody has an exact answer,” said Keith Woods, who as head of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa-based trade group, regularly meets with builders working in the fire zones. “It’s educated guesswork.”

Many tracking the rebuild say they expect it will be at least another three years, and potentially a decade before Fountaingrove’s rebuild wraps up. That forecast — and the prospect of an extended period of construction din and bustle — makes for wary builders and new settlers, suggested general contractor Todd Bowen of Petaluma.

“It’s pretty depressing if you buy a lot and no other homes are being built around,” Bowen said. “It’s not going to look good when you get done.”

A pile of problems

An assortment of subdivisions developed since the 1970s, Fountaingrove was home to several thousand people before the Tubbs fire. Their homes stood mostly on larger lots, with expansive footprints, interlaced open space, an 18-hole golf course that survived the fire and splendid views — past the fir and oak woodlands — stretching well beyond the Santa Rosa Plain.

Some of those luxuries — the topography, the lot size, the wooded landscape — proved a cruel twist after the inferno, when blocks of Fountaingrove homeowners discovered they didn’t have the insurance coverage needed to replace their original homes. The gap grew especially as the post-fire rush for labor and materials pushed construction costs ever higher.

The same period saw insurers signal their pullout from high-risk fire areas, Fountaingrove included, or begin to impose rate hikes that rattled residents seeking to return.

It’s pretty depressing if you buy a lot and no other homes are being built around. It’s not going to look good when you get done.General contractor Todd Bowen

Also complicating matters: a monthslong quandary beginning in late 2017 involving the safety of the region’s drinking water system, which was partly polluted by a toxic chemical released from plastic pipes melted in the heat of the fire.

The pile of problems makes residents like Erickson pessimistic about the future of her stretch of Bent Tree Place, where many longtime residents have left.

“It was a very special street,” she said. “I’m sure nice people will move in,” but “these people are your friends, and that’s been difficult, losing your friends.”

Since the 2017 firestorm, when several major blazes destroyed more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County, The Press Democrat has monitored the rebuild by tracking local lot sales and pulling monthly permit data from the county and Santa Rosa. A year ago, Fountaingrove had 10 homes rebuilt and a glut of burned lots put up for sale by fire survivors, the most of any burn zone in the city.

Today, more than 200 Fountaingrove homes have been rebuilt, and more than 700 are under construction or in the pipeline. But the contrast with far-along Coffey Park is stark: Less than a quarter of the 939 Santa Rosa homes rebuilt since the fires are in Fountaingrove, even though the area accounted for more than half the houses lost inside city limits in October 2017.

An abundance of lots remain for sale, with prices often below the initial listing, according to real estate data provided by Compass, a Santa Rosa real estate firm. And the surplus of for-sale sites in Fountaingrove may continue as more fire survivors who have been on the sidelines opt out of rebuilding.

The fear of another fire in the area adds to the mix of factors that have complicated the rebuild, said Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming, whose council district includes Fountaingrove.

“All of those things together make it a really courageous act, a really optimistic act to rebuild,” she said.

The progress is evident in concentrated areas, especially Rincon Ridge and Hidden Valley.

But empty lots still pockmark stretches of Crown Hill, Skyfarm and Fir Ridge drives, where five or more adjacent lots have no record of rebuild activity. Across Fountaingrove, no rebuilding has occurred on 501 sites — more than double the number of completed homes in the area.

Most inactive sites citywide appear to be owned by the same people who held the property the day before the fire, said Jesse Oswald, Santa Rosa’s chief building official, who expected more sales to outside investors.

“I was surprised at that data,” he said. “We actually guessed that a much larger number of lots have been sold... But that largest number is original-owner.”

City’s search for answers

City Hall officials are seeking to unravel the mystery of inactive sites, reaching out to homeowners with vacant lots who have yet to submit any building plans. Their simple method of survey: postcards.

Hopefully, owners of idle plots will respond, Oswald said, giving the city a better idea how to help them rebuild.

“If folks have already gone two years and we haven’t heard from them yet, short of a potentially significant successful outreach, I don’t know that anything is going to change,” he said.

To speed redevelopment after the disaster, Santa Rosa offered a special stand-alone department for fire survivors and crafted temporary rules for building in fire zones. The city will continue to prioritize fire rebuilds, but later this year it plans to phase out the standalone center for those permits.

Just last month, the number of those building permits spiked for Fountaingrove, reflecting perhaps a rush to beat the calendar-year deadline for new building codes, officials said.

Leaving town

But there’s a sizable minority of residents who haven’t stuck around. Some have remained local but moved out of Fountaingrove, and others have left Sonoma County, which has lost an estimated 4,700 people over the past two years — the largest documented drop in county history.

Geoff and Mary Brunet, formerly of Hidden Valley, enjoyed living in Sonoma County and wanted to find another place in the area after the fire destroyed their home on Sleepy Hollow Drive.

But they wrote off the prospect of rebuilding after seeing the hoops they’d have to jump through with insurance and securing a builder.

“We kind of knew right away we didn’t want to rebuild,” said Geoff Brunet.

They rented for a time in east Santa Rosa while looking for a new home. They weren’t able to buy the house they were renting, and they couldn’t find affordable homes on the market — even after broadening their search to Forestville and Sebastopol.

When Geoff reached the point of being able to retire from his job in Mendocino County, they decided to move. They now live in Denver, where they can split their travels between family in the Bay Area and in New Jersey.

Speaking by phone from their new home, the Brunets sounded wistful when they recalled visiting friends in Santa Rosa for Thanksgiving. They were impressed by the amount of rebuilding in Hidden Valley, but they were surprised by how many for-sale signs they saw. They didn’t share any regrets about their decision to leave.

“The overwhelming sense of well-being that we have really makes it feel like our journey away from the fire has come to its completion,” Brunet said.

Living in limbo

Many fire survivors share the burdens of insufficient insurance and high rebuild costs. But advanced age and traumatic memories of the Tubbs fire also came into play for many in Fountaingrove when deciding whether to commit to a process that takes a year or more to see through.

We decided to make this commitment, this sacrifice if you will, to kind of live in limbo for the next couple of years.Fountaingrove fire survivor Jamie Keck-Crozat

Fountaingrove’s residents tended to be older and might not want to face a complicated building process late in life. They also are more likely to have the wherewithal to relocate or to own homes elsewhere, said Oswald, the city’s chief building official.

“They have someplace else to live, and they’re happy there,” he said. Still others, he added, “haven’t recovered personally, psychologically, and don’t necessarily want to deal with rebuilding.”

Then there’s Jamie Keck-Crozat, whose family owns a local chain of auto body repair shops and who doesn’t fit neatly into any of those categories. She and her husband put their Crown Hill Drive lot, where they lived before the fire, on the market after buying another Fountaingrove property on Skyfarm Drive.

Altogether, the extended Crozat family lost five homes in the firestorm.

Jamie and her husband, Shane Keck, changed rebuilding plans midstream last year when, six months after giving birth to their daughter, she learned she was pregnant with a boy.

“Oh dear God, we gotta rethink what we need to do,” Keck-Crozat recalled thinking. The logistics didn’t work on their former lot unless they wanted to get rid of their footings and restart completely, she said.

The Santa Rosa native said she felt some doubt about rebuilding, especially with her second child on the way. But her family benefited from good insurance coverage and a “paramount” builder, so they opted to move forward on their new, west-facing Skyfarm lot — even if it means an extended wait.

“We decided to make this commitment, this sacrifice if you will, to kind of live in limbo for the next couple of years,” Keck-Crozat said, “but we’re going to have our dream house at the end of it.”

Investors see opportunity

An increasing share of new homes in Fountaingrove will be built not by fire survivors like Keck-Crozat, but by speculators and developers who have so far snapped up roughly 150 burned lots in the area.

There are plenty of boosters, including real estate agents and builders, who’ve made big plays in the area. Backers of redevelopment point to its views, spacious lots and nearby anchor employers such as Keysight and Medtronic as reasons why well-to-do professionals will still want to live in the area.

Once more burned lots are rebuilt in Fountaingrove its residents will inject more wealth into the area, said real estate agent Jeff Schween, who bought a lot on Skyfarm Drive after the fire.

“Fountaingrove’s going to end up being the newest, shiny spot to be,” Schween pledged. He singled out plans by the fire-damaged Fountaingrove Club to build a brand-new clubhouse for its golf course. “I think you’re going to hit new levels of affluence,” he said.

As of late July, 313 Fountaingrove lots had been sold for a median price of $270,000, according to the latest data available from Compass.

Investment activity on bare lots has been concentrated among homes that back up to the second hole of the golf course. Half of the first 14 homes on Cross Creek Road north of Thomas Lake Harris Drive have been sold to investors and have seen no building activity, according to city records.

You go down the street, other parts look scary because it looks like a checkerboard. People aren’t going to want to live in a checkerboard.Developer Terry Blete

One of those 14 homes now belongs to a development group that has bought seven other nearby Fountaingrove lots and plans to start building all eight by spring. The developers, Terry Blete and Bob Lis, plan to save on costs by building in bulk. The think they’ll do well with the sites they’ve acquired. “We just nailed the location,” Blete said, noting that a house near their lots recently went on the market for about $1.2 million. “Even at that price, it’s a grand slam for us, and I think we’re going to do much better,” he said.

But he acknowledged Fountaingrove could take several more years to build out — and that could dampen desire for settlers.

“You go down the street, other parts look scary because it looks like a checkerboard,” Blete said. “People aren’t going to want to live in a checkerboard.”

Other potential investors have held off on plans because of that patchwork in Fountaingrove.

Bowen, the Petaluma-based general contractor, said his post-Tubbs fire plan was to build four or five houses in Fountaingrove or Wikiup, including a dream home of his own. But he has shied away from buying even one lot given the slow progress.

“The biggest fear is you won’t be able to re-sell it for what it’s worth because the economy will take a downturn or nobody is building houses up there,” he said.

Haunted by fire

The effort to rebuild Fountaingrove has parallels to the 1991 Tunnel fire, which killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 structures in the Oakland and Berkeley hills. Before that wildfire, the area was dotted with homes similar to those wiped out by the Tubbs fire in Fountaingrove — spacious, upscale and costly to rebuild.

Most of us who lost everything, we’ve never had to build anything from scratch.Tunnel fire survivor Sue Piper

At least five years passed before most of those properties were rebuilt, said Sue Piper, who lost her home in the Tunnel fire and considered herself one of the first to return.

“Most of us who lost everything, we’ve never had to build anything from scratch,” Piper said.

Piper has more recently worked on insurance matters with Santa Rosa fire survivors as board president of United Policyholders, a nonprofit consumer assistance group. She said the quandary faced by Fountaingrove residents reminds her of her neighbors.

“They’re very much like we were,” she said. “They’re educated, they have funds and they use them.”

But for Erickson, the retired physical therapist, the delay has been dictated by financial shortfall — the gap between what they have and need to rebuild.

She and her husband have been watching PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings to see what sort of settlement might emerge before they decide whether to proceed on their custom home.

“To have what I had is not easy,” she said. “It would be difficult to recreate, certainly, with the monies that we have.”

And the threat of fire is unlikely to ever be extinguished for those who choose to live in Fountaingrove. The Kincade fire demonstrated that for people like Keck-Crozat.

She was more prepared this time, having packed and kept an eye on the fire’s progress. When the flames came within reach of the city, prompting the largest mass evacuation in county history, “We were ready to go and prepared to say goodbye to everything again,” she said.

“We weren’t crying,” but “we were scared. More for our kids, and scared of: ‘Here we go again. Here we go — starting over again.’ ”

Fleming sounded a similar note.

While it’s unclear to anyone how long Fountaingrove’s recovery will take, the councilwoman said wildfire, more than anything else for her, remained the dominant variable in the neighborhood’s future.

“Fountaingrove might not look like it used to look at any point,” she said. “But it might have a closer resemblance to how it used to look in five to eight years, if we don’t have catastrophic Octobers for the next couple years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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