Construction Industry Conference

Thursday, May 31, 2018, 8–11:30 a.m.

Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country, 170 Railroad St., Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Details and registration: nbbj.news/const18

Read interviews with the conference speakers.

Chris Coursey has been living in Santa Rosa for the better part of four decades and serving on its City Council for four years. His two-year term as mayor ends in December.

But the last seven months have been a whirlwind for the former Press Democrat columnist, dealing with a natural disaster of relatively massive proportions. For a city of roughly 170,000, it lost the majority of the nearly 5,300 Sonoma County homes burned during the firestorm touched off Oct. 8.

Faced with rebuilding the Coffey Park and Fountaingrove neighborhoods, the City Council and Sonoma County Board of Supervisors moved through parallel recovery plans that included streamlining the application process for fire victims, creating contract departments to handle them.

Coursey is set to be part of a panel of public officials from Napa and Sonoma counties at North Bay Business Journal’s Construction Industry Conference on May 31, talking about the challenges and solutions they’ve encountered in responding to the fire recovery and the pre-existing shortage of housing. It’s estimated that Sonoma County alone is 30,000 dwellings short of what’s needed.

He talked with the Journal about how the city is handing demand to rebuild the lost homes while prioritizing construction of new ones.

How does the North Bay’s progress with the wildfire recovery compare to other disaster areas?

It’s hard to compare it other disaster areas, because what I’ve heard from other disaster areas has been (after) years down the road. We’re just little over seven months down the road. I don’t have that same data point on other disaster areas.

Speaking about our own recovery efforts in the city of Santa Rosa, I would say that it’s not fast enough. I say that, not because I think we could be going faster, given the circumstances, but for the people who have lost their homes, it’s never going to be fast enough.

Does the pace of applications indicate the urgency of the victims?

We’re seven months into this and only 10 percent of the folks have even put in an application for a permit to rebuild. That is highly attributable to the 80 percent of the people who have lost their homes but haven’t settled with their insurance companies yet. You can’t know what you’re going to rebuild if you don’t know how much money you are going to have in your hand. The insurance issue, I believe, is the biggest issue we face in getting the rebuild started.

Is there anything the city even can do with the insurance issue?

The insurance industry is regulated by the state of California. But I have been working with partners in the Legislature in Sacramento. I’ve testified on several insurance bills two or three weeks ago in the state Senate on behalf of bills put forward by Sens. (Mike) McGuire and (Bill) Dodd.

Every time I talk to an insurance person I make the point to ask, “When are you going to get insurance claims settled, so we can get recovery going?”

What is the feedback you get in talking to the insurance carriers on the need to get these claims settled?

I’ve not spoken to CEOs of insurance companies. I’ve talked to agents, and they understand this is a problem.

Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has been very helpful in this. Early on, he was urging insurance companies to pay on the contents claims quickly. Some did, and some didn’t.

Construction Industry Conference

Thursday, May 31, 2018, 8–11:30 a.m.

Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country, 170 Railroad St., Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Details and registration: nbbj.news/const18

Read interviews with the conference speakers.

We’re in the situation now where people have lost their houses and they haven’t been able to settle on their structure claims. The uncertainty of not knowing what your insurance settlement is going to be is rippling through this community in many different ways. People can’t move forward if they don’t know what resources they are going to move forward with.

What are some areas where you see those ripples, and how is that affecting other parts of the economy?

We all talk about recovery, and the biggest part of that is construction of homes for people to live in. We had a housing problem before this, and we have a worse housing problem now. That’s a problem that ripples through the community, whether you’re an employer, a renter, a homeowner, your kids are trying to find a place to live after high school or coming back from college. It’s a housing issue, and housing touches all of them.

The City Council has taken interesting efforts in speeding the rebuilding process and the larger housing issue. What bigger housing challenges will council be tackling?

We’ve been doing quite a lot in the last seven months and a bit before then to change our regulatory process through the city level. There is more to come. We’re talking about being very aggressive about pursuing residential development in the downtown core and along our transit corridors and priority development areas. It’s about the work developers don’t like to do with entitlements, including a lot of the (California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA) work that goes into it.

Would that include the city’s doing preliminary CEQA work on specific-plan areas or form-based codes like Petaluma’s to allow developers to build quickly?

We just got an $800,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to update our (Santa Rosa) Downtown Station Area Specific Plan (of 2007). We had preliminary discussions with staff, and I assume the council will go along with this also, to do a form-based code for downtown to better facilitate the development we want.

Where there is a specific plan in place, like in downtown, CEQA has been done on that plan, so most of the CEQA work for projects in that area has been done.

Are there things the city can do to nudge along redevelopment around the downtown rail station?

We’re trying. One thing with this disaster is it has focused attention on Santa Rosa. We’re hearing from developers we haven’t before the fire happened. Our planning department the other day was talking to companies about what is possible in downtown. We don’t have any big announcements to make.

We’re in discussions with owner of the Press Democrat building — Cornerstone (Properties) — to develop that site along with the city-owned parking lot behind it. We’re looking for that one project that can prime the pump downtown, as far as residential is concerned.

Are there things you’ve been hearing from developers or the business community on what the right mix of uses would be the showcase for downtown?

We’re encouraging density, height, mix of affordability, in-sites, close to transit, the kind of development, for the most part, our community supports. We’ve had support on this, not just from the business and development communities, but from some of the environmental community, from the labor folks. Many of the factions agree we need more residential development downtown.

For example, the (Santa Rosa Metro) chamber of commerce, Sonoma County Alliance, Sonoma County Conservation Action and Greenbelt Alliance wrote a letter recently, encouraging the city and county to look at ways to create residential on their existing City Hall and County Administration Center sites and creating a new civic center for both governments downtown.

It’s an interesting idea we’re looking at. We would need a public-private partnership.

Would that be different from the 12- and 14-story proposals for downtown over a decade ago?

I don’t remember specifically if there was a consensus of interest groups on those projects, but there is now. I don’t think you can find a person in Santa Rosa who thinks we don’t need more housing, and the place to put it is downtown.

That doesn’t mean everyone needs to move downtown. Since when those 12- and 14-story buildings were proposed, some older people want to live in a place like that, and a lot of younger folks want to live there.

How is the city tackling the funding for the added cost of rebuilding and doing the heavy lifting for CEQA to make the city more attractive in redevelopment areas?

Our finances are in precarious shape right now. We’re not sure how much we will be reimbursed from the federal government for our costs in the disaster. The governor’s proposed budget includes good news, paying the local share of the cost of debris cleanup. If that survives the legislative process, that’s $13 million we don’t have to find somewhere else.

The May revise also has a proposal to backfill the lost property taxes for the next two years, which is in the multimillion-dollar range.

Congressman (Mike) Thompson has some language in a federal bill that would defray the cost of whatever it takes to fix the water supply in Fountaingrove.

These are some of the ways we’re looking to cover the cost.

What is opening up with the new federally designated opportunity zones in the St. Rose District and Roseland in Santa Rosa?

There are investors and developers interested in that and talking to our planning staff, but we don’t know what that will end up looking like. It’s been more recent than the last few months.

Were there significant redevelopment efforts put on the back burner with the loss of the redevelopment agency (in 2012)?

That money has been gone for many years now. That put a big dent in our ability to fund any subsidies for affordable housing projects. We continue to do so, but it’s at a much slower pace than when the RDA was available.

We’re dedicating the newest project, The Crossroads, which is a joint city-county project.

Other construction opportunities around the city?

The city and county are working closely on these issues. We had a joint ad hoc Build and Rebuild Committee of the City Council and the Board of Supervisors. We’re looking at joining forces and target specific areas of the city and county for building and rebuilding efforts.

New projects, we have more control over than the rebuilds, which we had kind of done what we can there, with speeding up the process and getting the government out of the way of rebuilding homes. What I think is the big wrench in that is the insurance issue. We still have more work to do together to make new development a more attractive proposition. Primarily in the priority-development areas and specific-plan areas.

There is a potential housing bond on the ballot in November. If we can do it together, we can make it happen quicker.

Contact Jeff Quackenbush at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.