Hillary Court was once a serene and picturesque cul-de-sac, and will be again someday.
But not anytime soon. These days, like most of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, it is a bustling, boisterous, borderline anarchy of contractors and suppliers, inspectors and utility workers, all doing their best to not inconvenience the handful of residents who’ve already moved back in.
“It’s tough for us in the winter, ‘cause we can’t really work if it’s raining too hard,” said carpenter Dylan Johnson, eating a Clif bar in the bed of a pickup during his Thursday midmorning break. “But now that it’s drying out, it’s going to be nonstop.”
Atmospheric rivers had been replaced, on this day, by sunshine and a steady stream of pickups, cement mixers and heavy equipment up and down Hopper Avenue. With the advent of a new building season, reconstruction in Coffey Park has ramped up to a level unseen since the start of the rebuilding, following the October 2017 Tubbs fire that destroyed 1,422 homes in this working-class community.
A full 70 percent of the burned Coffey Park properties are “either under construction or have reached completion,” said Gabe Osburn, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of development services. And more owners have been issued permits, but not yet begun construction.
“We are definitely running at full throttle out there,” said John Allen of APM Homes.
That wasn’t the case last year. By October 2018, a year after the fire, only 21 houses had been rebuilt and 520 were under construction. Today, 17 months after the disaster, 191 homes in Coffey Park have been completed, while another 689 are under construction.
Jeff Okrepkie, president and founder of neighborhood support group Coffey Strong, expects some 700 rebuilt homes to be occupied by midsummer.
“Right now, I do believe we are seeing probably the highest level of (construction) activity,” said Osburn of the city neighborhoods torched by the infernos, “especially in Coffey Park.”
“It would be hard to imagine, once we get through this construction season, anything close to this,” he said.
The alleged end of the rainy season isn’t the only reason the rebuild is heating up.
Since November 2018, the city’s been getting “60 to 90 new (building) permit applications per month,” Osburn said.
In many cases, the permit was ready to be issued, but the builder wasn’t ready to start — a fairly common occurrence during a wet winter, when moisture in the soil prevents contractors from developing homesites. As a result, Osburn said, “we had a lot of permit volume stack up.”
Plenty have been inspired to act by the increasingly loud ticking of a figurative clock. Many fire victims will stop receiving insurance benefits for temporary living expenses as of October. That coverage they’re using to pay their rent typically expires two years after the fire.
That deadline has forced many “fence sitters” — who took their time deciding whether to sell their burned lot or rebuild on it — to get off the fence. As Keith Woods of the North Coast Builders Association said, the prospect of “paying rent and paying the mortgage on a house that burned down” tends to have a highly focusing effect on people.
Another looming deadline could be nudging some fire survivors to complete their home rebuilding this year, in the opinion of Jennifer Gray Thompson, executive director of the Rebuild Northbay Foundation. Starting in 2020, most new homes built in California will be required to be “zero net energy” — to produce as much energy as they use.
Those eco-friendly upgrades could cost homeowners from $10,000 to $40,000 — a prohibitive hit for someone who’s barely able to pay for their new home. True, solar panels eventually pay for themselves. But it doesn’t do a cash-strapped buyer any good on the front end.
The rebuilding effort would not be clipping along at this rate in Coffey Park were it not for the city’s decision, in the wake of the fire, to dramatically streamline the planning review and permitting processes. Santa Rosa’s Resilient City Permit Center abides by a “24-hour request with no cap,” Osburn said.
“That means if you request an inspection today, you get it tomorrow. Doesn’t matter if there are 10 requests or 300 in the queue, we’ll respond to them.”
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The city has averaged about 150 property inspections a day, “about 5,000 a month,” said Osburn, who presides over a daily 11 a.m. meeting to handle “the daily little issues” that arise, questions about setbacks, shared storm drains, elevation differentials — disputes that can arise when someone wants to build a house taller than their old one. Decisions that would normally take “two or three weeks” are made much more swiftly.
It doesn’t always go like clockwork. John and Amie Sollecito would probably be back in their Hillary Court home by now, if the city hadn’t dropped the ball on their fire sprinkler permit. Once the city approved their plan, they had the sprinklers installed.
“The installer put them in according to the plan,” Arnie Sollecito said. “When the city came out to check it, they said, ‘Nope, we don’t like how they’re placed.’ They had us move them all over 2 inches.”
In the end, that delay cost them six weeks.
Four lots north, subcontractor David Jessop looked up from the blueprints he’d laid out on a stack of two-by-six wood planks in time to see his coworker, J.D. Dockstader, weaving his way down Hillary Court in a forklift bearing a stack of plywood. To avoid colliding with pickups parked on both sides of the street, he’d lifted the plywood to 12 feet in the air, like a waiter holding a tray of drinks over his head.
“We have a general understanding among construction workers,” Dockstader said with a grin. “If your load is bigger than their truck, they get out of the way.”
“Yield to the bigger boat,” agreed Chris Hislop, who was installing an electric garage door nearby.
“The truth is, we all work with one another,” Jessop said. “For the most part.”
Keep it up, gentlemen. Things won’t be calming down in Coffey Park for quite a while.
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read the article at the Press Democrat here.