Rebuilding Sonoma County: Larkfield area moving ahead on sewer extensions

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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2019 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

Gena Jacob figures she may come out ahead, in at least one respect, in the wake of the Tubbs fire that leveled her Larkfield home and sent her on a terrifying flight from the flames roaring down the Mark West Creek corridor nearly a year and a half ago.

Emotional recovery may be far off, she said, but an enticing deal from Sonoma County could ease rebuilding the home she and her wife, Sheri, enjoyed for 18 years while raising their daughter.

Through a program created by Sonoma Water and offered to 143 homeowners in Larkfield Estates, they plan to connect to a new sewer line — freeing them from the constraints of their aging septic system — with a financing package that takes some of the sting out of the cost.

“I can get the rebuild done,” Jacob said. “Now I can breathe.”

County supervisors were exultant, as well, in approving the sewer project that prorates the estimated $7.9 million cost among the Larkfield homeowners. Construction costs are estimated at $50,000 to $65,000 per parcel, plus a sewer connection fee of about $12,000.

The deal didn’t sound sweet, Jacob said, until Sonoma Water set up a low-interest, long-term financing plan that postpones the lion’s share of costs for 10 years and comes with a 2.5 percent interest rate.

Jacob, who leads an informal homeowners group favoring the project, said the deal is attractive but she has qualms over the $15,000 range in estimated construction costs.

“I’m not comfortable with that,” she said, suggesting the project timetable could be moved back, possibly enabling the county to come up with a firm cost.

Their new home, downsized to three bedrooms but including a granny unit with solar panels on the roof, is under construction and meets the needs of the couple, with their daughter, Ashley, now off at college.

Lacking a sewer connection, they would have been unable to add the second unit, Jacob said.

Homes with septic systems are limited to a specific number of bedrooms and there needs to be enough septic capacity to accommodate each additional bedroom.

“This is the epitome of resilience in our rebuild,” said Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes Larkfield and who played a key role in devising the sewer project.

The 143 eligible lots lie within a triangle-shaped area bordered by Old Redwood Highway, Mark West Springs Road and Ursuline Road, where every home was incinerated by the Tubbs fire on the morning of Oct. 9, 2017.

The Jacobs fled within 13 minutes of a warning by a sheriff’s deputy. They knew by the following day they wanted to rebuild the home on the property they bought in 1999.

But connecting to the proposed Larkfield Estates sewer line at first seemed burdensome, Jacob said. Like others, they were spending their insurance payment to cover lost belongings and replacing the house itself.

“Nobody has an extra $40,000 or $50,000 for sewers,” she said.

County officials realized the costs would be staggering if fire victims had to shoulder them immediately, said Mike Thompson, Sonoma Water’s assistant general manager.

The financing plans they devised include a 2 percent loan requiring $750 a year from 2020 to 2040 to cover the $11,940 sewer connection fee and a separate 2.5 percent loan to cover the construction cost, with annual payments of $3,210 to $4,170 with a 10-year grace period that defers the initial payments to 2030.

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2019 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

“That is really inexpensive money,” said Jacob, who works in mortgage banking. “I think it’s pretty generous.”

The project is on schedule to be completed in mid-2020, in time for the third anniversary of the Tubbs fire, which destroyed 4,651 homes, including 1,729 in the Greater Mark West/Larkfield area.

Eight burned homes have been rebuilt, 163 are under construction and permits have been issued for 64 homes in the Mark West/Larkfield area, according to Permit Sonoma.

Supervisor David Rabbitt called the sewer project a great example of “making a community stronger and better going forward.”

Supervisor Susan Gorin said it would make Larkfield Estates “an even better community than it was before the fire.”

The program was possible because Larkfield Estates, where homes were built starting in the mid-1960s, is within the Airport-Larkfield-Wikiup Sanitation Zone, which serves about 2,700 parcels with a treatment plant located next to the county airport. Most of the neighborhood’s homes have private septic systems.

The sewer project includes 2 miles of new sewer main, with lateral lines to the edge of each participating property. So far, however, only about 30 property owners have indicated an intention to sign up for the sewer program, and there is a March 31 deadline to register.

Sonoma Water is hosting a community meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at Riebli School to make a pitch to landowners.

The tight timeline is the result of the fact the project design cannot be finalized until all the participants have been identified, Thompson said.

“This is very much a fast-track project,” he told supervisors three weeks ago. “We’ll be doing what we can to get people signed up.”

Gena and Sheri Jacob look forward to settling into their new home, but the wildfire isn’t something they will be able to just put in their past.

“I haven’t recovered yet,” Gena Jacob said. “It’s going to take a long time. Maybe we’ll never feel we’re completely recovered.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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