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Coffey Park Chronicles

Read more stories about Coffey Park’s recovery here

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Earlier this year Coffey Park residents wondered when their fire-scarred neighborhood would at last start to bustle with rebuilding.

Now that construction is underway on hundreds of homes, many are asking why it is taking so long to break ground on their own projects in the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood.

The delays they face in the increasingly crowded maze that must be traversed before they can rebuild — including home design, permitting and construction scheduling — has left a growing number of fire survivors frustrated.

Christina Pozzi Westphal, a Coffey Park homeowner, compares the situation to being stuck in a traffic jam. Her own rebuild on Nina Court is on track with her third builder, but progress came only after two earlier contractors failed to make much headway for her family.

“They’re hitting rush hour,” Westphal said.

Much like drivers trapped during a heavy evening commute, fire survivors are discovering the pre-construction process this summer is crowded, slow and stressful. For many, it comes with “the anxiety of wanting to get home,” said Jeff Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood group.

The recovery effort comes 10 months after the most destructive wildfires in state history. The fires of October claimed 40 lives and burned 6,000 homes in the North Bay. Flames destroyed more than 1,450 homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood and surrounding area.

For fire survivors, delays have arisen because of a marked increase in the rebuild efforts.

By the end of April, only 311 property owners had applied to rebuild homes around Santa Rosa, according to city data.

Three months later that number had nearly tripled to 910 applications, about a third of the 3,000 residences burned in the city.

In response, the city greatly increased the amount of personnel available to process permits and inspections. The monthly staff time on rebuilding has doubled since March and soared some 58 percent from June to July to 5,147 hours.

Some fire survivors said the permit process in the last few months is taking longer than expected, as much as six weeks from application to issuance.

David Leal, who is rebuilding his Santiago Drive home, said his builder dissuaded him from asking the city why his permit was delayed. Leal said he received his permit in late July, six weeks after applying for it. He suggested the city could help those rebuilding avoid “a lot of sleepless nights” by simply announcing that the process now takes longer.

“They’re swamped,” said Leal of the city staff. “They’re doing the best they can do. They just need to communicate a little more so people aren’t in the dark about expectations.”

Other fire survivors voiced frustration with builders. They said the contractors had made little progress, whether on their own rebuild efforts or on other burned lots where those builders had placed signs. A common frustration was a lack of information.

“If they’re not communicating with you, there’s a problem,” said Mellissa Edney, whose home burned on Santiago Drive.

Edney and her husband, David, left their first contractor and switched this summer to Urban Equity Builders, the same contractor Pozzi Westphal is now using.

“What they’ve done for us in two weeks is more than what our previous building group had done in seven months,” she said.

City officials acknowledged that permit processing times temporarily lengthened after May when the wave of rebuild applications came in. But after a significant increase in staffing, the city is striving to meet the turnaround times listed on its rebuild website, said Planning Director David Guhin.

The published times vary depending on the level of revisions to the original home’s design. The city estimates its review will take up to a week for complete plans on a home plan with few design changes and up to five weeks for one with large-scale changes.

The terms “review” and “complete plans” are key. Officials maintained it doesn’t take the city six weeks to review plans, but it can take that long to get a permit based on how many weeks an architect or other homeowner representative takes to make revisions and resubmit the design package to the city.

“The correctness of that first submittal is really critical,” said Gabe Osburn, deputy director of development services.

An incomplete package often requires a second in-depth review to ensure the plans meet safety and building codes, Osburn said. In contrast, minor corrections when resubmitted often can be approved over the counter, immediately followed by the issuance of the building permit.

Both Guhin and Osburn urged fire survivors who have questions or frustrations to directly contact the city rebuild center and get answers. But they said homeowners soon also will have an easy way to monitor their permits’ progress.

In the next few weeks the city plans to unveil an online tracking system that will include detailed reports showing exactly how long the plans were reviewed by the city and how long they were in the hands of architects or others for revision.

“It’s transparent about how the system is working,” Guhin said.

Others noted that if a builder or architect is shown taking weeks to revise a plan, the city is less likely to get blamed for the delay.

When asked about delays, building leaders said reasons often relate to the state of the construction industry and to the unprecedented scale of the disaster.

After a national housing crash and a decade of downsizing, a scaled-back construction industry finally was looking at an abundance of work in the months leading up to the disaster.

“We were slammed before the fire,” said Paul Gilger, secretary of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and a senior project designer for Hedgpeth Architects in Santa Rosa.

Keith Woods, CEO at the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group, said industry leaders are seeking solutions for the logjams that have developed. For example, builders as a group this summer began meeting monthly with city and county officials to work on resolving problems and relieving bottlenecks.

“That is paying off in more accelerated activity in the rebuilding efforts,” Woods said.

At MKM Engineering in Santa Rosa, the staff has grown to 45 members, 10 more than before the fire and the most in its 35-year history.

“We still don’t have enough,” said John Cook, a senior principal and president of the firm. He said his staff regularly works overtime, and the volume of human interaction tied to the rebuild effort is making the work among the most challenging ever undertaken by the company.

Okrepkie said those in the construction industry often say about the fire survivors, “I’ve never had clients that need such attention before.” Those used to dealing with fellow building professionals are needing to make a mental shift to working with laypeople who often have lost all they owned.

“You’re not building houses,” Okrepkie said. “You’re rebuilding homes.”

Justin Calaway, a Santiago Drive resident, said it took six weeks to get his permit from the city, but he still praised the staff at the rebuild center and noted that one worker there on a Saturday sent him an email update about his plan’s status.

Like others, Calaway mentioned that many fire survivors are striving to get back into their homes before their rental assistance insurance runs out, likely by October 2019. Even so, he voiced hope that all those involved in the rebuild effort will “try to cut everybody a little bit of slack.”

He suggested the activity level of the recovery probably will remain high in the coming months. And the likelihood of future wildfires in Northern California mean more communities in the years ahead are going to look to Santa Rosa for examples of how to rebuild.

“The sad reality,” said Calaway, “is we’re all going to get better at this.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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