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Contractor taps lessons from wildfire rebuilds to complete 98 Santa Rosa homes; coronavirus lockdown kick-starts Fountaingrove reconstruction

Brad and Brandy Sherwood were like many owners of the 5,600 homes destroyed in the 2017 Tubbs Fire — underinsured and inexperienced with the homebuilding process.

Their home in the Larkfield Estates subdivision went up along with those of their neighbors when the Tubbs Fire raced west from Calistoga through north Santa Rosa in the wee hours of early October 2017.

The fire left just a light post, entry pavers and remnants of rose bushes.

Those rose bushes have regrown and now the family is in a 2,400-square-foot home with four bedrooms, office and three bathrooms. That's thanks to a recently wrapped mass rebuild of 98 homes in that neighborhood as well as nearby Mark West Estates and elsewhere in the path of Tubbs by Stonefield Development.

'They had a great solution with group pricing, rather than individual pricing for each of our homes,' said Brandy Sherwood. 'That allowed us to afford the floorplan we were hoping for.'

Building on lessons learned from rebuilds of about 120 homes after three Southern California wildfires, a month after Tubbs Stonefield went to past rebuild team member Anaheim-based Residential Design Services, which has a Fairfield design center, to come up with about a dozen floorplan options that could become the basis for fixed-price deals for victims of the North Bay fires, according to Jeff Pack, vice president of Stonefield.

'We saw on TV there would be a need and compared the costs that were being talked about with what we were able to build in Southern California for three previous fires,' Pack said.

Marlene Soiland, who runs Soiland Companies that include construction materials and compost businesses, had seen quotes in the months after the fires of $350-$400 a square foot or more for many of the rebuilds, going up to $600-plus for high-end homes in the Fountaingrove area of northeast Santa Rosa.

Through Julia Donohoe, who led the American Institute of Architects Redwood Empire chapter committee recovery efforts immediately after the fires, she heard about Stonefield's neighborhood-scale rebuilds and learned that the company was offering prices well under $300 a square foot that were locked in with fixed-price contracts.

She and a few neighbors in Mark West Estates met with the company and then took the idea to the homeowners association. After some spirited meetings about whether the HOA's documents would allow rebuilding something different than the original, the group decided to move forward with a few residents honing down Stonefield's floorplan options to ones that would be preapproved by the association. Stonefield then allowed some customization options inside the building envelope at certain steps of the building process.

'I feel like I got a custom house out of this,' Soiland said.

She appreciated the escrow-account approach to funding the project, in which the insurance funds were managed by a third party that does its own inspections of work completed. Pack said the eight-draw method of payments to Stonefield and the subcontractors protects the homeowner that work actually is getting done and the builders that the money is available for the work.

The escrow draws were completed before draws from lenders on the property. Only 5% of the 98 rebuilds in Santa Rosa needed supplementary financing to make up for insurance shortfalls, Pack said.

The Sherwoods moved into their rebuild last August, and the last certificate of occupancy was issued Feb. 10 for the Larkfield Estates homes done.

Mark West Estates got the final county sign-off May 26. Soiland's home had been a vacant rental that was in escrow to sell the night of the Tubbs Fire. She sold the rebuild in January.

Of the 3,043 housing units destroyed inside Santa Rosa city limits in the 2017 fires, making up 5% of the whole city's housing stock, so far 40% (1,228 units) have been rebuilt, and another 31% (957) are under construction, according to the city. Permits have been issued for 64 units, and applications on 112 more are pending. Of the 2,600 single-family homes burned, 79% are actively being rebuilt.

The rebuild has been even more dramatic in certain devastated neighborhoods of Santa Rosa. In the Coffey Park neighborhood, 1,230 single-family homes were engulfed as the firestorm roared west across Highway 101 and into the dense subdivisions, but 94% (1,158) have been rebuilt, are under construction or have permit applications in progress.

'It has exceeded everyone's expectations,' said Keith Woods, CEO of North Coast Builders Exchange. 'The pace in Coffey Park is phenomenal, and it is the same in Larkfield and Mark West.'

Some estimated it would take as long as a decade to rebuild the homes lost, given how long it took to build them decades ago and the pace of building in recent years.

'It is still slower in some of the other areas, and that will take a couple of years to sort out,' Woods said.

In the Fountaingrove area of northeast Santa Rosa, reconstruction work or permitting activity has been underway on about two-thirds of the 1,368 single family homes lost there. And multifamily projects are in progress, including a new proposal to build 224 flats on the former site of the burned Fountaingrove Inn.

But the shelter-at-home orders throughout the San Francisco Bay Area that restricted what construction work was allowed to continue as 'essential' to continue during the coronavirus restrictions on the economy actually has kick-started rebuild activity in Fountaingrove, according to Jesse Oswald, Santa Rosa's chief building official.

California deemed affordable housing to be essential, and Sonoma County added rebuilds to that allowed-work list. (That restriction on construction activity was lifted in May.) After initial disruptions in the construction supply chain by lockdowns nationwide, local work started to pick up.

'In two or three weeks of the first (shelter) order coming out, we heard from the field that rebuild activity had increased significantly because construction was shut down everywhere else Bay Area-wide,' Oswald said. 'So the rebuild with more availability of labor for subcontractors had an overabundance of workers available. That has turned the Fountaingrove burn area into what Coffey Park looked like last summer.'

Building inspections per day last summer for Coffey Park rebuilds were in the 180s range, and checks on work in Fountaingrove this spring have been over 100 daily and approaching 150, Oswald said.

After a spike to 80 in December ahead of a host of building code changes, new applications for rebuilds in Santa Rosa are down significantly so far this year — six to 15 monthly through April — down to levels in the first couple of months after the 2017 fires, according to city data. Rebuild applications ranged from 54 to 65 in January-April last year.

Nearly half (49%) the 1,949 parcels in the unincorporated Sonoma County areas where structures burned in 2017 have reconstruction work happening now, and rebuilding is already complete on over one-third (526) of the properties, according to the Permit Sonoma county agency. Another 213 parcels (over 14%) have permits in progress.

In Napa Valley, 99 rebuild permits have been issued for structures burning in 2017 or are ready to be pulled, and 41 are pending, according to the county's online tally.Beyond the wildfire rebuilds, there could be lot of residential and commercial construction coming to the Highway 101 corridor from Petaluma through Windsor, Woods said.

'We could experience almost a tsunami of construction in the next few years, if the economy recovers,' Woods said. Much of it is shaping up to be multifamily residential projects, along with pent-up demand for commercial tenant improvements and renovations.

'People are accepting of the need to build more housing, and elected are crying out for new housing, so that leaves the banking sector as the wildcard,' Woods said. Started in 1986 and now based in Santa Rosa, Stonefield now is looking at building on the remaining burned lots and exploring opportunities for tract homes and multifamily workforce housing, but impact and other fees remain a significant challenge to profitability for new local construction, Pack said. So the company is considering remodeling jobs to weather the uncertain economy.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Contact him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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