Rebuilding heads east to Sonoma Valley

Alexi Rosichan works on boundary surveying and topographical mapping among the burned properties along O'Donnell Lane in Glen Ellen, Feb. 20, 2018. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)


Many of the Sonoma Valley “fire survivors” who attended the Feb. 28 Rebuilding Community Meeting at Altimira Middle School were taking the first steps toward forging a new future for their properties – now that the debris removal process is finally nearing completion.

Sonoma Valley is last on the list for debris removal and steps toward rebuilding, due to the Army Corps of Engineers applying their resources to the more densely-impacted Coffey Park and Fountaingrove areas. But now, it’s Valley time.

“I am so delighted to see you, and so sad to see you,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district was one of two hit hard by wildfire. “We’re all in the same boat, having suffered great loss.” The supervisor lost her home on Oct. 10, one of only two residences in Oakmont that burned to the ground.

But it was one of over 5,300 houses lost county-wide in the fires, and 1,400 in Gorin’s own district, affecting hundreds of individuals and families in the Sonoma Valley and Bennett Valley.

The progress of debris removal has seemed agonizingly slow to those whose homes and memories were scorched in October, and especially so in the Sonoma Valley.

In late November, those figures were 209,000 tons of debris from 595 properties in the 3rd District, close to and inside Santa Rosa city limits. As of early January, the Corps has cleared 2,228 properties – about half of those affected by the October fires.

On March 6, following publication of this article, the Army Corps released figures that 1.3 million tons of debris had been removed in Sonoma County alone, and 2,818 parcels completely cleared and ready for rebuilding, or 3,235 parcels cleared overall in the county. (See attached graphic.)

Only in the past month have the resources of the Army Corps in clearing debris moved steadily into the Sonoma Valley, with active debris clearing now focused around Glen Ellen.

This was the first of several public meetings in the Valley, organizers promised, noting that the process was already well underway in the Santa Rosa areas damaged by fire.

A housing fair is also being planned for some time in April, similar to those already held in Santa Rosa.

Permit Sonoma director Tennis Wick pointed out that Valley residents may be at least a month behind residents of Coffey Park, Wikiup or Larkfield in the rebuilding process, unless they have cleared their properties themselves.

The Army Corps of Engineers – represented at the meeting by the commander of the Sonoma Recovery Field Office, Col. Eric McFadden – focused their initial clean-up efforts in the Santa Rosa area, and have been moving their efforts eastward into the Valley.

There, neighborhoods have already rallied around “block captains” to help organize and pursue economies of scale in such important home-building steps as surveys, soil samples and, eventually, construction needs as well.

McFadden reported that another thousand properties have been cleared since the first of the year.

“So far we have removed 1.6 million tons of debris in 116 days,” said the camo-clad colonel. “We have cleared 3,200 parcels, and 2,200 are ready for rebuilding.”

Wick went further, saying that 22 houses had already drawn permits to rebuild, and 13 bridges were also ready to rebuild. But Wick acknowledged the strain it put on his own department, saying, “It’s important to give fire survivors the service they need, but maintain service for the 90 percent of the county that didn’t burn.”

A special Resiliency Permit Center is now open, dedicated to assisting survivors of the fires in their rebuilding efforts by accelerating the permitting process. The Resiliency Permit Center is located adjacent to the existing Permit Sonoma offices at 2550 Ventura Ave. in Santa Rosa.

Still, Wick promised reduced fees for building in rural residential areas, if wells and septic systems were already in place, even while acknowledging that each RR property had its own challenges and peculiarities. “We’re not going to let you down,” he said.

It was a rotating roster of county officials and employees who took the microphone, often in response to questions from the audience delivered on colored 3-by-5 cards. Though some were repetitive and some seemed obvious, the panel was always open minded and helpful. As Wick said, “There are never too many questions, and there’s never a dumb question. It’s just unfortunate when people don’t ask them.”

Some highlights:

A representative of the county assessor’s office reminded those who lost their homes in the fires to keep her office informed of every temporary move they make, as property tax bills would still be due on schedule.

According to the county tax office, there were already 160 delinquent tax bills, some possibly due to missing addresses; but they said that State Senator Mike McGuire had assured the county that any missing property tax revenue – as much as $18 million this year, and higher next – might be covered by the state.

Voting, too, would still be at the “home” address, even if the home were no longer there, but a mailing address should be provided to the registrar so everyone would get voter packets and the like.

People planning to rebuild on the same property were informed that the county assessor would not change their appraisal if the new house were the same size, or smaller; but a larger home would lead to an increased assessment.

The District Attorney’s office is investigating several cases of contractor fraud, such as those brought last week against Peter Koke of North Carolina (charges which he has disputed). People looking for licensed contractors were referred to the state licensing board,, to confirm authorized tradespeople in general engineering, general building and specialty contractor categories, although the board does not rate contractors, merely authorizes their licenses.

In response to questions from the audience, Gorin recognized property owners in rural areas who have seen their roads beaten up by debris trucks over the past few weeks, and said the county would be evaluating a budget and timeline to rebuild roads. However, she said, that would probably not happen before the houses themselves were rebuilt.

Neighborhoods should consider gathering resources to hire expensive experts for surveying, geotechnical reports, soil samples, if not common construction resources like materials and labor. This can bring the costs of rebuilding down from $500 per square foot to $300, said Wick, as “economies of scale” kick in.

Wick also advised people building new homes consider a “junior unit,” a room in the house with a separate entrance, or an “accessory dwelling unit” in a separate building on the property to provide additional income. There is no county permit fee for a junior unit, and the Board of Supervisors is considering lower permitting fees for accessory dwelling units, Wick said.

“The rebuilding process is going to take time,” said Gorin, citing insurance, surveys, permits in addition to construction. “But there are many reason why you may be able to rebuild within two years. It may take two, or it make take five, or even 10 years.

“But we want you to rebuild.”

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