Santa Rosa mayor: Fire recovery should be like nothing seen before

Santa Rosa mayor Chris Coursey, in Santa Rosa's Hidden Valley neighborhood, that was razed by the Tubbs fire, Friday Oct. 20, 2017. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

On Nov. 16, about 500 people attended the Business Journal’s Impact Project: Rebuild event to hear about “restoring business and confidence in our North Bay” following October’s devastating fires.

Chris Coursey, the mayor of one of the cities most devastated by the fires, Santa Rosa, was unable to attend. He was asked to respond to questions about the city response to the fires.

At this point, what do you see as the most urgent priority?

CHRIS COURSEY: Today’s most urgent priority is removing debris and ash from nearly 3,000 lots in Santa Rosa. This is a step-by-step process, and cleanup must happen before rebuilding begins.

This is a huge job in itself, and so far it is going well. We got about 90 percent of property owners signed up for the government program being performed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Where do you want the rebuilding process to be in 90 days?

COURSEY: In 90 days I expect the rebuilding process to be well underway, with at least some homes under construction. The Santa Rosa City Council has established what essentially is a “second” planning department to deal specifically with rebuilding, which will smooth and shorten the permit process to get construction underway faster, and speed the inspection process to help builders keep their work moving.

What are the next steps for the state, county, city?

COURSEY: We need to think beyond “just” rebuilding. Discussions are underway about how to help homeowners build “beyond code,” such as providing subsidies to pay for “net zero energy” homes now — even though state code won’t require that for a few more years. Sonoma Clean Power wants to help with that, and it will benefit not just the individual homeowner, but the entire community and — ultimately — the entire planet.

How is red tape being cut to expedite rebuilding?

COURSEY: In Santa Rosa, we adopted our “Resilient City” ordinance to issue building permits over the counter, without extensive review, to anyone wanting to rebuild within their home’s prior footprint.

Design review will be limited to a staff determination rather than requiring a public hearing. Second units will be allowed on the property so homeowners can live on site while rebuilding their homes.

And as noted earlier, a separate “Resilient City” planning department has been created to specifically deal with rebuild projects, ensuring that firestorm recovery doesn’t have to compete with the day-to-day planning needs of city government.

Tell us one story you remember that gives you hope for the rebuilding.

COURSEY: This goes a little beyond the rebuilding theme, but I think it’s important.

Since the fire, I have had numerous meetings with builders and developers who are interested in investing in Santa Rosa outside of the burn zones.

These are people who want to create multi-family housing projects in our downtown and transit-oriented neighborhoods. Santa Rosa has been working on creating more housing downtown for several years, but the fire has brought us the attention that is necessary to make that happen.

This is important because, while we need to rebuild the 3,000 homes lost in the fire, we also need to build thousands more units in Santa Rosa — senior housing, affordable housing, student housing.

This interest gives me hope that in five years, we won’t just be back to where we were in 2017; we will have actually made progress in our efforts to provide “Housing for All.”

What is your greatest fear for the recovery?

COURSEY: I fear losing the people who make this such a great community.

Whether it’s doctors or teachers or carpenters or firefighters, this fire has affected a wide swath of our city’s fabric. I want the members of each of the 3,000 families burned out of their homes to know that we need them here in Santa Rosa, we want them here and we as a city are going to do everything in our power to make sure they can stay here and thrive here in the future.

What is your greatest hope for the recovery?

COURSEY: That we become a model for how disaster recovery is done right. This fire is unprecedented in California and the U.S.and our recovery effort also should be like nothing seen before.

Within a couple of days of the fire I expressed this sentiment. Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have advantages beyond what other communities have in a time of crisis.

Financial resources and intellectual resources abound here, as does a community spirit of giving and participating and volunteering.

We need to put all of this to work in the next few years.

How can people help?

COURSEY: Don’t forget the feelings you had in the days right after the fire. At that moment, we were all one as a community. If we can hold to that, we can do anything.

Is there something you wanted to convey that you were not asked about?

COURSEY: Please keep in mind that when we are talking about all these big numbers (3,000 homes in Santa Rosa), each one of them represents an individual life and an individual loss.

All of us have ideas about how rebuilding and recovery should happen, but it is those who lost their homes who ultimately will make these decisions.

I hope they plan to rebuild, and to do it soon. I hope they plan to upgrade their homes and take advantage of opportunities to make them more energy efficient and fire resistant.

But right now I just want to support them as they deal with this huge blow, this huge loss. I want to find ways the city can make it easier for them to navigate the complicated road back. And I want to acknowledge that each one of them has the right to choose their own road home.

Anything else?

COURSEY: This has been an incredible number of weeks. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it has offered an education into disaster and its aftermath that at times has made me feel like I’m studying for master’s in disasters.

New layers of complexity reveal themselves every day, from huge issues such as the intergovernmental relations among the many city, county, state and federal agencies involved in response and recovery efforts to intimate details such as the missing remains of a loved one or the story of an elderly couple’s last moments together.

The events of Oct. 8–9 will mark this city forever, but it is the next couple of years that will define who we are in the future.

We need to rebuild our neighborhoods, of course, but we also have an opportunity to strengthen our community. Let’s make sure that Santa Rosa Strong is more than a bumper sticker. Let’s make sure that our response creates a stronger Santa Rosa.