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Larkfield Estates add municipal-style sewer system after North Bay fires

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Special Coverage

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

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For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go here.

Those passing by Larkfield Estates could mistake it for part of Santa Rosa.

The cluster of streets, home to 166 single-family residences before the subdivision was leveled by the Tubbs fire, sits at the southeast corner of Mark West Springs Road and Old Redwood Highway. Cardinal Newman High School is down the road to the south, and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital sits to the west, beyond a shopping center that lines the intersection.

This developed piece of Sonoma County is just that — part of the unincorporated county, beyond city limits. And it was built originally like a rural development: with homes relying on septic systems instead of sewers.

That’s set to change starting next year, when work begins on a municipal-style sewer system proponents say will provide peace of mind for homeowners, ease environmental concerns, open up parcels to further development and potentially increase property values.

It started in March 2018, with a neighborhood meeting. A group wanted a sewer system for the rebuilding neighborhood. At an estimated $50,000 to $60,000 per home, the price sent some neighbors running. Others posted signs: “My yard, my choice.” No way were they going to be bullied into buying into a city-style sewer system when their septic system and accompanying leech fields would do just fine. Since bids were opened this past week, the cost estimates have dropped to $42,000 per home.

“Of all the issues we’ve faced as a community, this issue was potentially the biggest dividing issue,” said Doug Koski, a neighbor who moved back into his house in March. “There’s still a little bit of a ripple. Guys that do a half wave instead of a hearty handshake.”

Part of the cause for improved relations: the program is voluntary.

To date, just 25 homeowners have signed on, and another 60 have given “soft commitments,” said Mike Thompson, assistant general manager for Sonoma Water, the county agency. Those who don’t agree to hook up will just continue to use a septic system. If the property at any point in the future does hook up to the sewer, it will pay the costs to hook in.

Sonoma Water is offering participating residents a low-interest loan program to cover the costs. The loans come in the form of liens that are paid off on homeowners’ property taxes, meaning any attempt to refinance a mortgage or sell a home would first require a homeowner to pay off the sewer costs, Larkfield Estates resident and mortgage loan advisor Westin Miller said.

“It’s limiting our options from a financing perspective,” he said.

But Miller will likely still sign on. Homeowners have until Oct. 8 to do so.

It’s the next step for neighbors in this small sliver of the larger Mark West-Larkfield area, where 1,729 homes were destroyed by the Tubbs fire in 2017. To date, 77 homes have been rebuilt, averaging about one completed home every two days since August. Another 274 are under construction, and construction is pending on 59 more.

For those already committed to rebuilding with sewer, like Gena Jacobs, the program requires some creative plumbing. Today, Jacobs’ house is hooked into a septic system in the backyard. By this time next year, it will be hooked into the sewer in the front yard.

Special Coverage

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

_____

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go here.

The folks at Hogan Plumbing understand the gravity of the situation. Paul Bianchi, who does business development for the company, said it’s all about the flow.

“Everything has to flow downhill,” Bianchi said. “Later, we’ll have to reverse the flow.”

That requires a fair amount of extra plumbing, Bianchi said, and a little bit of work when the time comes to make the switch. It’s something he’s never had to do in his 26 years in the business, Bianchi said.

As for the switch to sewer itself? Bianchi is a big fan.

“It’s peace of mind, you never have to think about it. “Nobody who lives in a home with a city-connected system gives a second thought to their sewer system. Every single person who has a septic system, they’ve had problems with it, and they worry they’re going to have problems.”

New way to repaving roads

Sonoma County supervisors on Sept. 17 voted to make roads worse in an effort to eventually make them better in the Larkfield-Wikiup area.

During the lengthy rebuilding process, there will be numerous reasons for various companies to dig or trench into existing roadways. Under current rules, those companies are required to repave those trenches to a certain quality standard.

Because of the nature of the rebuild, sticking with that standard would lead to a patchwork of repaved patches, something county officials would very much like to avoid. Enter “OnePave,” a program that allows crews to install lower-quality patches following trenching. Homeowners pay a fee to avoid complying with the higher paving standard, creating a fund that will eventually be used to repave the entire area to make it look nice and uniform.

Trees bring sense of normalcy

In an effort to bring foliage back following the fires, the appropriately named ReGreening Larkfield event, put on by the Larkfield Resiliency Fund in partnership with Arbor Day Foundation provided 1,350 free trees Sept. 14 to neighbors impacted by the fires.

Money for the program came from a $34,000 grant from the foundation’s Community Tree Recovery Program. They had too many trees, so they spread the love to Coffey Park, another neighborhood impacted by the Tubbs fire.

“Prior to the fires, our neighborhoods were home to hundreds if not thousands of mature trees,” said Christine Ratliff, secretary with the fund. “Larkfield Resilience Fund is honored and grateful for the opportunity to help re-create that feature and offer rebuilding families the gift of greenery.”

Among the donated trees were the pink lady apple and Fuji apple, Chinese fringe, crepe myrtles, maples and coast live oak.

Cardinal Newman rebuilding

A $4.25 million, 10,000-square-foot classroom building, replacing one lost in the Tubbs fire, welcomed students back from summer break this year at Cardinal Newman High School.

The north classroom building was destroyed by wildfire, as was the school’s library and front office and 20 classrooms.

The rebuild marked just one piece of good news. The rest? That’s a secret school administrators are waiting to unveil on Oct. 7.

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