Gullixson: Rebuilding Sonoma County is not a do-over

One of many scenes from a devastated Coffey Park in Santa Rosa. (Paul Gullixson / The Press Democrat)


“Whether (homeowners) stay or they go, they should never leave because we failed them.”

— Supervisor James Gore

Here’s one way we can stop failing them. Let’s end the armchair quarterbacking about how Fountaingrove and Coffey Park homeowners should be “allowed” to rebuild their homes and, in some cases, whether they should be allowed to rebuild at all.

It’s pointless, and it’s divisive.

Given the general antipathy over how Fountaingrove was built in the 1990s, it didn’t surprise me to hear the let’s-do-it-right-this-time chatter come out even while flames were still burning. But I’m surprised it has persisted this long.

“People are doing a nice job of representing the right of the rich, the powerful, the educated and highly paid Fountaingrove families to rebuild their now twice-burned homes (1964 and 2017),” a Santa Rosa resident said in a letter to the editor published Tuesday. “We are going to have to figure out, plan and put into place some new, safe and sane rules for rebuilding.”

So much for how “we’re all in this together.” Apparently membership is now income based.

I get it that people are unhappy with how Fountaingrove was developed in phases some 25 or more years ago. I remember the arguments well. People were understandably upset that ridge lines weren’t protected as they had been promised. Rules weren’t followed. It was frustrating.

That said, some folks need to separate their feelings about how Fountaingrove was developed and their feelings about those who call it home.

These are not lines on a developer’s blueprints that we are talking about. These are the ghostly outlines of what once were people’s houses and lives. For about three decades, people have celebrated family birthdays, weddings and holidays in those homes. They’ve played catch, learned to ride bikes and had block parties on those streets. Telling them how to rebuild is like telling them how they should be “allowed” to decorate their living rooms.

And, no, we do not “have to figure out, plan and put in place” new rules for them to follow. They have a right to build their houses the way they were and, most likely, the way their insurance company’s insist. And my guess is they don’t need to be reminded of the fire dangers.

I can’t imagine anything more frustrating for these residents, after all they have been through, than having people rubbing their hands in hopes of using this fire to correct some past planning mistake. This catastrophe is many things. But it is not an opportunity for a community do-over.

The same is true of the 1,300 homes lost in Coffey Park. Unlike Fountaingrove, few officials argue with the way that area was developed long ago. Nor did many anticipate that one day it would be destroyed by an urban wildfire.

But some still have strong ideas with how the residents there should rebuild. And much of it is coming from people from outside the area or who did not lose houses in these firestorms.

“For a city that has historically been slow to build workforce housing … Coffey Park poses an unheard-of opportunity,” noted a recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It could be the ideal commuter village, if residents are willing to sell their single-home plots to developers of multi-unit buildings.”

The message: rebuilding it would be nice. But it could be so much better, especially if they let the experts handle it.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane was quoted in the Chronicle story saying that she would like to see higher-density housing in Coffey Park as well as “grocery stores, dog parks, smarter senior housing,” although she noted that “we have to respect the homeowners.” She later said the article failed to accurately represent her views. She said she would just like to see the government give residents options for how their area might look. But she emphasized that homeowners “have a right to rebuild how they want to.”

Even so, I don’t blame residents for being offended when people start talking about what should happen with their neighborhoods, especially without including them in the conversation. Making their properties more transit-oriented and pedestrian friendly is not a high priority for many. Some are worried whether they will be able to afford to rebuild at all.

That’s why it’s encouraging to hear that some homeowners in Fountaingrove and Coffey Park are taking action and banding together to share information and possibly share contractors. More than 500 people turned out for a Rebuild Coffey Park gathering earlier this month to swap ideas on moving forward.

“I don’t want people I consider my friends and neighbors to be taken advantage of or left behind,” said Jeff Okrepkie, one of the organizers of the meeting.

If only we all felt that way.

Thankfully, some do. In fact that was a sentiment that was reflected in the remarks of Supervisor James Gore when he spoke Friday morning at the Economic Development Board’s economic forecast breakfast. Note the quote above about the need not to fail those who lost their homes.

“Those areas that were burned out, we have to rebuild them according to what their desires are, not what we want,” he said. “We’ve got to bring them back their homes and empower them to be the decision-makers. And we have to incrementally stay with each and every one of those people, otherwise we fail.”

We all fail.