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Rebuilding Sonoma County: Fountaingrove homeowners seek aid to fill funding gaps in rebuild

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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.

Rebuilding the home she lost in Fountaingrove to the Tubbs fire in October 2017 has been a frustrating and confusing process for Brenda Gilchrist.

She was underinsured, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration denied her applications for aid. To make matters worse, Gilchrist said, the salvageable foundation on her lot was inexplicably overexcavated without her consent.

Gilchrist, a partner in a local human resources consulting firm who lives in the Alturia Heights neighborhood, said her rebuilding troubles have been compounded by insufficient financial aid for Fountaingrove homeowners.

While many may be considered affluent by the average Santa Rosan, some are nonetheless struggling to close the gap between available funds and the cost of rebuilding.

Gilchrist and her neighbors have watched as disaster relief resources go elsewhere — including Coffey Park, where Santa Rosa recently authorized a state-funded $1.2 million loan program to aid rebuilders. Gilchrist is among those wondering why there’s no such program for folks in Fountaingrove.

Then there’s the matter of the $14.1 million city and county officials plan to spend on homelessness projects; the $90 million complex that includes affordable housing and shelter beds being built by Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the county’s main homeless services provider; and a $124 million federal disaster recovery grant that is expected to include $38.5 million for new apartments in Santa Rosa and $47 million to fund grants of up to $150,000 for Californians to rebuild and repair single-family homes.

“We’re all wondering: Where do all the funds go?” Gilchrist said. “The fundraisers, the concerts, the grants, the tax dollars that came in … Where did all those monies go?”

The Coffey Park loan program has generated “a lot of interest” but no eligible applicants, city spokeswoman Adriane Mertens said. And state officials expect the first awards from the $124 million grant to be issued this fall, after that process was delayed by the federal government shutdown.

Fountaingrove resident Laney Rooks, an aspiring lawyer and former medic in the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard who lives on Alkirst Court, said she doesn’t oppose spending taxpayer dollars on projects such as homelessness shelters. But if the city doesn’t do more to aid rebuilders, it’s in danger of seeing its tax base eroded by the departures of fire survivors, she said.

“I have three neighbors I know that are leaving the area because they can’t rebuild. They can’t afford it, and they don’t want to put themselves in a situation where they are homeless,” Rooks said.

City Councilwoman Victoria Fleming, whose district includes Fountaingrove, noted that funding from state and federal entities — such as the state money that funded the Coffey Park loan program — often is subject to strict income requirements.

And many of the federal funds local officials receive for homelessness projects are limited to homelessness and can’t be diverted to supplement other initiatives, such as rebuilding, she said.

“Our hearts go out to everyone who is courageous enough to rebuild,” Fleming said, adding she wasn’t aware of any opportunities to set up a similar loan program for Fountaingrove residents but would support such a program.

By mid-April, 21 of the roughly 1,500 homes that burned in Fountaingrove during the October 2017 fires — including the Journey’s End mobile home park and the Villa Capri senior living facility — had been rebuilt, according to data provided by the city. Another 482 units were under construction, and the city had issued permits for an additional 118 and was reviewing plans for 125 more.

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.

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Smoother elsewhere

One rebuilding company that shifted operations to Sonoma County after the fires and is working on roughly 30 Sonoma County homes is winning rave reviews from clients.

Kevin Skiles, president of Urban Building Workshop, said his company moved all of its operations to Sonoma County after the October 2017 wildfires.

“We decided that we should pull all of our resources from Oakland, San Francisco and Marin to help with the rebuild effort as much as we could,” he said.

Judi Hyman, a 65-year-old Fountaingrove resident who is rebuilding a home on Foxtail Court, credits Skiles’ company with helping her replace the home she raised her kids in with a “Barbie dream castle” with “all the bells and whistles.”

“I feel like I’ve been surrounded by a huge team of positive, good-for-me people who have helped me, in the past year and a half, realize my new home,” Hyman said.

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Buyer’s club breaks ground

Matt Condron is one of more than 30 homeowners in Fountaingrove’s Altaire subdivision that banded together to rebuild their homes with Lafferty Communities after interviewing dozens of builders and drafting an agreement designed to keep costs down by providing guaranteed volume.

Though he’s near the back of the line among his neighbors, Condron said he’s excited by the prospect of adding a new bedroom, bathroom and balcony to his home.

“It’s taken a lot longer than we planned,” he said, adding that while having to rebuild after the fires has “obviously been a painful process ... The outcome’s been really, really great.”

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

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