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The Path To Rebuild After Wine Country Fires Will Be A Long One

It has been over a month since wildfires ravaged Napa and Sonoma counties and cleanup efforts are well underway. Cities and developers are finding ways to make the rebuilding process faster in a region that often takes years to get through entitlements.

The Path To Rebuild After Wine Country Fires Will Be A Long One
Homes destroyed after the wildfires in Santa Rosa

The Wine Country fires destroyed 8,900 structures, including 3,000 housing units or 5% of the housing stock in Santa Rosa. Property losses are estimated around $4B and include homes and local businesses. In an area where housing was already undersupplied, rents have started rising and many residents worry they will be priced out of the region.

At the previous rate of 1,200 new housing units built each year in Sonoma County, it would take several years to bring back the thousands of units that were lost, according to Pacific Union International Chief Economist Selma Hepp. Santa Rosa is looking at ways to streamline the rebuilding process, which will help, but rebuilding will take years.

The Oakland Hills fire of 1991 provides an example of what the rebuilding process could be like. Streamlining the process allowed for rebuilding to begin 18 months after the disaster, according to Hepp. The recovery took about four years, but not all units were rebuilt and many property owners sold their land.

The dynamics of rebuilding are quite different in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County than they were during the Oakland Hills fire. Housing stock is extremely low and the region is facing a significant housing crisis. Moving out of the county also will be difficult, with condo and home pricing expected to rise in San Francisco with demand from those displaced.

Prior to the fires, new construction rose with about 1,500 new housing permits for Sonoma and Napa counties for 2017. But with demand from 1,800 households expected to migrate into the region, supply still was not meeting demand, Hepp said. There have also been about 10,000 units built within the last 10 years to meet demand for 18,000 households that moved into Sonoma County.

Before the fires, the city was working to create more affordable housing, finding ways to streamline the building process for affordable units, securing $2.75M for affordable housing projects and making it easier to add accessory dwelling units, according to the Press Democrat

Residents Face Rising Rents, Construction Costs

The Path To Rebuild After Wine Country Fires Will Be A Long One
Aerial view of homes destroyed and left standing after the Tubbs Fire swept through Santa Rosa in October

After the fires, housing prices and rents are expected to go up as housing will need to meet current code requirements. A shortage of housing, labor and materials also will increase costs, the Los Angeles Times reports. The ongoing labor shortage may make it difficult for homeowners and commercial developers to rebuild and build new projects.

Renters will be hit the hardest. In Coffey Park, 40% of residents were renters. Median rents in Santa Rosa rose 16% in late October to nearly $3K compared to before the fires, according to Zillow. Countywide rents increased 36% to $3,224 in late October.

Rebuilding in these large suburban neighbors may present opportunities for more density. Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane, a longtime housing advocate, told the San Francisco Chronicle she hopes Coffey Park can be rebuilt into a community with grocery stores, dog parks, senior housing and higher-density development.

But it will be up to the homeowners to determine what the future of Coffey Park will look like, and many have indicated at recent meetings that they plan to rebuild and do not want apartments and condos.

“There are a lot of young children and young couples who bought their houses during the economic downturn,” Santa Rosa resident Jeff Okrepkie, who lost his home, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was their first opportunity to buy a bigger home for a very low price. I just don’t see people being OK with giving that up.”

Why It’s So Difficult To Build In Santa Rosa

The Path To Rebuild After Wine Country Fires Will Be A Long One
If an endangered California Tiger Salamander is found in a region where developers want to build in Santa Rosa, additional mitigations are required, which can add years to the entitlement process.

One of the biggest hurdles for rebuilding in Sonoma County will be navigating the different regulatory requirements by various agencies. City Ventures, which has been working to get six housing projects built in Santa Rosa since 2013, has had experience with the longer-than-normal entitlement process.

Santa Rosa piqued the interest of City Ventures due to its undersupply of housing, according to City Ventures Senior Vice President, Northern California Patrick Hendry. It has the fifth-largest population in the Bay Area with a thriving healthcare and tourism industry that is a gateway to the Wine Country. 

Hendry said it has taken three to four years to secure permits from various agencies, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. City Ventures has secured permits for two of its six projects.

Santa Rosa is within the Santa Rosa Plain, which contains protected flora and fauna, among them the endangered California Tiger Salamander. If any building impacts an endangered species, additional remediation and mitigations are required, making a typical 18-month entitlement process a six- or seven-year process, the San Francisco Business Times reports.

The city itself is pushing forward on special zoning districts for the fire-ravaged areas with priority for permit review given to these areas. Fees also may be waived. Other options under consideration are rebuilding near transit, such as near the SMART train station at 7 Fourth St.

Rebuilds are usually not subject to environmental review, which will help, but new developments would still be.

The Path To Rebuild After Wine Country Fires Will Be A Long One
City Ventures Senior Vice President, Northern California Patrick Hendry

Going forward, Hendry said his company’s Santa Rosa projects will experience some delays since a lot of the trades were local and impacted by the fire. He said City Ventures plans to work closely with the city to speed up the construction timelines and the permitting process for four of its other Santa Rosa projects.

“We are ready to gear up and do whatever we can to accelerate construction and help those affected find new housing in Santa Rosa,” Hendry said.

The developer is working with its construction lenders to get 220 homes to start construction immediately and is working closely with its construction trades to solve the labor shortages and expedite the timeline, he said. Expedited permit processes would have City Ventures' remaining housing projects permitted in 2018 with construction beginning soon after.

To help expedite the rebuilding efforts, Hendry said third-party consultants could be brought in and funded by new construction projects so no direct costs are added to the city. This would also lessen the strain on staff who can focus on rebuilding efforts.

Santa Rosa could also partner with local biologists to create a single, regional permit that would cover all housing projects in the permitting queue at the U.S. Army Corps, USFWS, Regional Water Quality Board and CDFW, he said. Several city leaders have been pushing to streamline the rebuilding process by pushing through permits in months rather than the typical two years. 

Hendry said City Ventures also could work with affected residents, the city and insurance companies to pre-plot homes at its Fox Hollow subdivision in Northwest Santa Rosa. If all goes well, City Ventures will build 665 new homes throughout Santa Rosa over the next few years.

“We are committed to working hand in hand with the city to speed up our construction timelines,” Hendry said.