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Read more coverage of the the North Bay wildfire recovery: nbbj.news/2017fires


This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

Dozens of fire-scorched properties have been listed for sale in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, a new wave in a widening pattern of residents electing to sell their land after the October fires rather than commit to rebuilding projects that could be costly and take years to complete.

The deadly Tubbs fire destroyed 1,519 homes in the Fountaingrove area, the most of any single Santa Rosa neighborhood. Among those displaced by the devastation, on what were once upscale, tree-lined blocks, were local CEOs, attorneys, doctors, judges, philanthropists, wine industry executives and top government officials.

Yet as the cleanup has progressed in Fountaingrove — behind the work in Coffey Park, where the largest sum of properties have been scraped and many of the first lots went up for sale in early December — the real estate signs have begun popping up in greater numbers.

“We’re tracking these things like crazy and this is pretty dramatic,” said Mike Kelly, real estate agent for Keller Williams Realty in Santa Rosa. “I think in the first month people were still shell-shocked, and now as the lots are cleared, they’re starting to get them on the market.”

Within the past month, more than 40 burned parcels in the Fountaingrove area have been listed. Where the smaller, suburban Coffey Park properties are typically selling for about $140,000 to the low $200,000s, the price point of Fountaingrove’s lots has a much broader range.

The median price of the listings is $350,000, with the upper end of the range topping out at around $800,000.

“It’s hard to price,” said Marel Ponseti, a longtime Sonoma County real estate agent currently with Century 21. She has yet to get involved in the sale of a fire-affected property, but has received numerous calls from clients who are considering putting their property on the market and leaving town.

She thinks some of the current Fountaingrove listings are overpriced, and advises prospective sellers to wait until more lots make it out of escrow and change hands before settling on a figure.

“There’s nobody in this county that knows burnt residential land,” said Ponseti, who has worked in local real estate for more than 40 years. “It’s the worst fire in California’s history — you can’t predict that, you can’t learn about that.”

The potential complication for Fountaingrove, unlike Coffey Park, which sits on flat land west of Highway 101, is its history with wildfire. Nearly all of the destroyed homes were built in the past three decades on rolling ranchland that was burned in the last major wildfire to menace Santa Rosa, the 1964 Hanly fire.

The paths of two blazes were eerily similar, raising the question among some local residents and government officials last year as to whether Fountaingrove should be rebuilt.

“I hesitate to even suggest this,” Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, a former Fountaingrove resident who lost her Oakmont home in the Nuns fire to the south said to The Press Democrat in late October. “But many people are starting to say, why are we — and this is in the city’s realm — why are we thinking about permitting the rebuilding of Fountaingrove?”

Read more coverage of the the North Bay wildfire recovery: nbbj.news/2017fires


This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

Santa Rosa, in turn, has signaled that it will not stand in the way of those planning to rebuild. But for some homeowners at least, the ordeal is too much, with both financial pressures and quality-of-life questions that have led them to look elsewhere for housing.

The vacant lots are selling — primarily to builders and speculators looking to turn a buck, according to local real estate agents.

Deborah Merga of W Real Estate in Santa Rosa has two Fountaingrove properties in escrow after a second seller accepted an offer on Tuesday. Both were previously two-story homes on 6,000-square-foot lots, listed in the low $300,000s and bought by builders in all-cash deals.

She acknowledges that pricing her four fire-affected listings — each on Cross Creek Circle on or near the Fountaingrove Club golf course — required some guesswork because of the unprecedented nature of the sales. The lack of comparable transactions made for a challenge, but Merga said she drove around the area and looked at typical measures, such as lot size, view corridors and, of course, location, to make valuations.

Still, knowing whether sellers are getting properly compensated for the current worth of their lots is difficult to say. So far, the sale prices are less than half the prior value of the properties when the homes were standing.

“There’s no science on this and no sales up in the Fountaingrove area,” said Merga. “So I’m advising clients as best I can, as all agents are. I’m advising to be a little flexible because we don’t know. Until you get some sales, you don’t really know what people are willing to pay.”

Because of the range of layouts and topography in Fountaingrove, as well as Larkfield-Wikiup and the Mark West Estates northeast of Santa Rosa, prices will continue to vary widely, according to real estate agents, just as they did before the fires.

Acreage, connection to sewer or septic systems and views that offer anything other than fire devastation are other factors for such neighborhoods. Coffey Park, where lot sizes are more uniform and sewer connections universal, isn’t affected by such variables.

“It’s a whole different price point in the northeast,” said Kelly. “But what we’re all waiting for are letters stating the lot is free of any toxics and has been cleaned off and the lean is off the property to close a bunch of these. So the dynamics are pretty interesting and still in a state of flux.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.