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Move back or move on? Thousands with burned lots in Sonoma County are confounded by their futures

Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Lots for sale or sold:  https://www.pressdemocrat.com/multimedia/9162508-181/map-database-burnt-empty

Like other Tubbs fire survivors, Kris and Allen Sudduth initially wanted to rebuild their two-story home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.

After the October 2017 wildfire, the Sudduths met with a builder and tentatively selected a home design for their lot on Hopper Avenue. After further consideration, they concluded a contractor couldn’t rebuild the life they once had in the fire-ravaged neighborhood in the northwest section of the city.

“They would build a house, but it wouldn’t be my home,” said Kris Sudduth, a part-time nurse.

The Sudduths realized what they really wanted was a chance to start over in a different area with a home in the countryside. So in May 2018, they bought a single-story ranchette on a half-acre property west of Santa Rosa. A month earlier, they had sold their charred Coffey Park lot to an investor, who has yet to begin rebuilding a house on it.

This will be a pivotal year of decision for about 2,100 Sonoma County fire survivors — those who unlike the Sudduths have yet to commit to rebuilding or selling their burned lots. These survivors constitute about 40 percent of people who lost 5,334 homes in the 2017 wildfires, predominantly from the Tubbs fire, which ranks as the second-most destructive wildfire in California history.

 

The neighborhood between Mark West Springs Road and Pacific Heights Drive was completely destroyed by the Tubbs Fire, in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, October 10, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

What they ultimately decide to do will determine whether the pace of rebuilding on the large swath of north Santa Rosa, blackened by the infernos, accelerates this year. Only 150 of the houses destroyed in the fires have been rebuilt as of last week, according to city and county records.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/local/9060028-181/move-back-or-move-on

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Santa Rosa townhouse project in Fountaingrove cleared for construction

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The biggest new housing development in a Santa Rosa neighborhood torched by the Tubbs fire in October 2017 has been cleared by city officials to start construction.

The Santa Rosa Design Review Board on Thursday gave final design approval for the Round Barn Village, a 237-unit townhouse project in the Fountaingrove neighborhood.

San Francisco developer City Ventures plans to build and sell the three-story, three- to four-bedroom townhomes on a 40-acre tract. They are expected to have price tags in the $600,000 range. Twelve of them will be priced below market levels to make them more affordable.

Construction is expected to begin in April. Sales would start in the fall, with the first owners expected to move in during the summer of 2020, City Ventures’ development director Charity Wagner said Friday.

This final go-ahead for the development came almost a year after City Council approved the project. Council members initially hesitated because of concerns about building in a hillside area in the northern part of the city prone to wildfires.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9179365-181/santa-rosa-townhouse-project-in

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Proposed Marriott hotel in burn zone denied approval by Santa Rosa Planning Commission

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa planning commissioners have blocked a large hotel project in Fountaingrove, citing the potential peril posed by future wildfire among their chief concerns, and foreshadowing a looming fight over the extent of new commercial development allowed in one of Sonoma County’s biggest burn zones.

The first-of-its-kind decision came in a 3-3 vote Thursday by the city’s Planning Commission, which withheld approval of a use permit for the 114-room, three-story Residence Inn Hotel by Marriott. It is envisioned for a 4.6-acre site just north of the former Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel and the Fountaingrove Inn, both of which were destroyed in the Tubbs fire in October 2017.

The outcome reflects the city’s ongoing struggle to balance public safety with its stated commitment to facilitate redevelopment of burn zones. Officials vowed even in the immediate aftermath of the fire not to stand in the way of homeowners looking to rebuild in Fountaingrove, which lost nearly 1,600 homes in the Tubbs fire.

But embrace of new development, including commercial projects, has been a much trickier issue in the hillside area, which has burned twice in the past 54 years. In addition to the two hotels, the Tubbs fire destroyed the historic Round Barn, a quarter-mile south of the hotel, singed Fountaingrove office buildings and threatened nearby Kaiser and Sutter hospitals before jumping Highway 101 to the west.

The deadly and destructive Camp fire that swept through Butte County last month gave planning commissioners additional pause Thursday.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9028541-181/proposed-marriott-hotel-in-burn

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Santa Rosa lifts 11-month water quality advisory in Fountaingrove neighborhood

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Water in Santa Rosa’s fire-ravaged Fountaingrove neighborhood is safe for drinking and bathing, city officials said Thursday.

The city lifted the water quality advisory in place since the historic Tubbs wildfire in October 2017 melted water pipes in the hilly neighborhood and contaminated sections of the water system with benzene, which can cause cancer.

Residents living in the advisory area of Fountaingrove, where about 1,600 homes burned in the most destructive fire in California history, will get individual notices from the city about the water safety.

Recent water tests in the neighborhood showed traces of benzene, but at levels lower than state-mandated safety limits. The city said in a statement “the water continues to meet all state and federal standards for safe drinking water.”

Water testing will continue for at least a year to ensure safe water conditions, city officials said. Jennifer Burke, the city’s deputy director of water resources, said the city will continue sharing with residents the results from subsequent tests.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8831902-181/santa-rosa-lifts-11-month-water?utm_source=boomtrain&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pd_breaking&bt_ee=ssS4Wcl06w1x64k%2BtZMmX%2BzEwBUjXHTsSHurR5xa67tWNhTRKSRsfi7NO1zRPptg&bt_ts=1539291227551

Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , , ,

Wildfires: Managing the risk

Dan Farber, LEGAL PLANET

How can we limit the spread of wildfires and save people and property?

Wildfires are already a serious problem, and climate change will only make the problem worse, as I’ve discussed in my two prior posts. Reducing carbon emissions can help keep the problem from growing, but we need to deal with the risks we’re already facing. That is going to require a portfolio of risk management strategies. We need to ramp up all of them.
Land Use Controls.

There are increasing numbers of people moving into the wild-land urban interface (WUI).The USDA’s report on the WUI says that 3.8 million people live in that zone in California alone. Nationally, a million homes were added to the WUI just in the decade from 1990-2000. That simply isn’t sustainable.

Human activities increase the risk of fire from sparks or burns, and homes are typically highly flammable and help fires spread more quickly. Better land use controls could limit development in high risk areas. Easier said than done, however, given development pressures. According to a 2013 study, ” land use planning for wildfire has yet to gain traction in practice, particularly in the United States. However, fire history has been used to help define land zoning for fire planning in Italy, and bushfire hazard maps are integrated into planning policy in Victoria, Australia.” By 2016, however, Headwaters Economics was reporting on five Western US cities that were taking advantage of at least some land use tools to reduce fire risks, though none seem to have imposed outright bans on development in high-risk areas.

Buyouts may be a fallback in extreme situations. Building codes can also help — for instance, by requiring fire-resistant roofs on new houses. Liability rules for fires have to be carefully considered. Making utilities liable for fires can cause them to take greater precautions, but the prospect of compensation could also encourage people to live in unsafe areas. On the other hand, fire insurance costs can send an important price signal about the risks of WUI property ownership, as some Californians are already beginning to experience.
Land Management.

Read more at http://legal-planet.org/2018/10/08/wildfires-managing-the-risks/

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A few Fountaingrove fire survivors opt to rebuild more fire-safe homes after fierce Tubbs fire

Martin Espinoza, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When deciding whether to replace his charred Fountaingrove home with a house made with wood or concrete, William Cavalli considered two things — history and the fable of the Three Little Pigs.

More than 50 years before last October’s devastating Tubbs fire, the 1964 Hanly fire followed a similar destructive path from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, burning through a far less-populated Fountaingrove area. And way back in 1870, the hilltop neighborhood was torched by wind-driven blazes that also originated in the Calistoga area.

Cavalli, 73, said that was enough to convince him to build a more resilient home. His new house on on Garden View Circle is essentially an above-ground concrete residential bunker designed to be fire-resistant and earthquake proof.

“That’s three fires. I started thinking maybe we got to do something different,” Cavalli said. “It kind of made sense to me. We joke around, going back to the story of the Three Little Pigs.”

Cavalli is among a handful of Fountaingrove residents rebuilding their houses burned in last year’s fierce wildfire using concrete or steel frames rather than wood. The historic fire, the most destructive in California history, torched 5,636 structures, including more than 1,400 of homes in their neighborhood.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8761670-181/a-few-fountaingrove-fire-survivors

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Land UseTags , , , ,

We came, we planned, we were wrong

Pete Parkinson, NORTHERN NEWS (California Chapter of the American Planning Association)

You are all too familiar with the headline by now: California Is Burning.

Last fall, more than 6,000 homes were destroyed in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties (including my own home near Santa Rosa). Homes went up in flames in rural, sub-urban, and urban settings, including 3,000 homes lost within the city limits of Santa Rosa.

CalFire had designated some of those areas as very-high wildfire hazard; others (including my neighborhood) were considered “only” moderate wildfire hazard. Still other areas — like the suburban Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa where over 1,300 homes were lost — were not considered wildfire hazards at all.

This year has brought no relief. As I write (in mid-August), we’ve seen new wildfires sweep into the city of Redding and threaten Yosemite National Park. The Mendocino Complex, the largest wildfire in California history (eclipsing a record set only a few months ago in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties) continues to burn 45 miles north of Santa Rosa.

Wildfire hazards have been a consistent theme in my career as a planner and planning director in three northern California counties (Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Cruz). I have
overseen the preparation of General Plan Safety Elements, Local Hazard Mitigation Plans, and regulatory codes that addressed the full range of hazard management strategies, including road access, water supply, defensible space, and structural design. The underlying theme of these efforts was a belief that wildfire risks can be managed to an acceptable level of public safety, if not eliminated altogether. In fact,
I cannot recall any development project that was denied, or where the density was substantially reduced, because of known wildfire hazards.

The firestorm that swept into our Santa Rosa community last October has fundamentally changed my thinking about development in California’s fire-prone landscapes. Now, 10 months post-catastrophe, let me offer a few lessons learned from one planner’s perspective.

Read more at https://norcalapa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Oct18.pdf

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , , , ,

The era of megafires: the crisis facing California and what will happen next

Daniel Swain, Crystal Kolden and John Abatzoglou, THE GUARDIAN

Three scientists explain the unprecedented danger facing the western US and call for new solutions to a growing threat from building in wildlands, fire suppression and climate change.

California is no stranger to fire. The temperate winters and reliably dry summers that make the Golden state such an attractive place to live are the same conditions that make this region among the most flammable places on Earth.

But even for a region accustomed to fire, the continuing wildfire siege has proven unprecedented. Although it is only early August, numerous very large, fast-moving, and exceptionally intense fires have already burned vast swaths of land throughout the state – consuming hundreds of thousands of acres and thousands of homes and claiming at least nine lives, including four firefighters. State and national firefighting resources are stretched to their limits; choking smoke inundated the state capital of Sacramento; and much of Yosemite national park is closed indefinitely.
Largest wildfire in California’s history expected to burn for rest of August
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California’s governor, Jerry Brown, has characterized these devastating wildfires as California’s “new normal”. But it would be a mistake to assume that the region has reached any semblance of a stable plateau. Instead, the likelihood of large, fast-moving, and dangerous wildfires will continue to increase in the coming decades – and it will combine with other demographic and ecological shifts to produce a large increase in the risk of megafires that threaten both human lives and the ecosystems we depend upon.

Immediately on the heels of California’s deadliest and most destructive fire season, just a year ago, the early ferocity of 2018 has unnerved even veteran firefighters. While the number of fires in California to date is unremarkable, the total area burned is extraordinary: five times the five-year average, in a decade that has already been characterized by fire activity well above historical levels.

The causes are complex, and people are part of the problem. In 1980, 24 million people lived in California; today there are nearly 40 million. Much of this population growth has occurred outside of the dense urban core of cities, resulting in rapid expansion of housing in suburban and semi-rural areas adjacent to wildlands.

Of the tens of thousands of homes burned by wildfires in California in recent decades, nearly all were located in this suburban-rural borderland. With housing shortages and high prices plaguing cities throughout the state, it is unsurprising that residents build on the fringes, places often replete with natural beauty. Yet residents are often unaware of the risks inherent in living there, and the need to mitigate those risks accordingly – their lives may depend upon it.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/07/california-wildfires-megafires-future-climate-change

Posted on Categories Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , , , , , ,

Op-Ed: Break down regulatory barriers before passing a tax for housing

Brian Ling, CEO of the Sonoma County Alliance, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

We all love Sonoma County, but the protections we have implemented, such as growth ordinances, urban growth boundaries, community separators, the open space district and an incredibly public and intensive approval process, have led to our housing crisis of under supply, over demand and incredibly high prices (even before the fires). Our residents need to universally support the projects that are being proposed within current general plan guidelines, particularly those within transit-oriented and other priority development areas. We (NIMBYS too!)voted in these protections to support the growth of new urbanism concepts. We need to support these projects now.

Today’s housing crisis is a product of land-use decisions made over the past three decades combined with a significant increase in unnecessary and/or duplicative rules and regulations. There is no question that the October fires put an exclamation point on the housing crisis. However, it is imperative to reverse this trend of housing barriers before the community further taxes ourselves toward a solution.

The Board of Supervisors, the Santa Rosa City Council and their planning departments should be commended for implementing policies to expedite rebuilding in the fire zones and priority development areas. However, additional opportunities remain that must be applied to all development within the respective general plans, not just within the fire zones. The Sonoma County Alliance believes taking action is required to positively impact new housing opportunities.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/8453619-181/close-to-home-break-down?sba=AAS

Posted on Categories Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , , , ,

The sword and the shield: Is CEQA to blame for the North Bay’s housing crisis?

Tom Gogola, THE NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

The landmark California Environmental Quality Act of 1970 was intended as a shield against construction projects that imperiled the environment. But in a case of unintended consequences, critics charge that the powerful law has been wielded as a sword by labor groups, environmentalists and neighborhood groups to defeat proposed housing developments. The result, they argue, is that a well-intentioned law has driven up the cost and lowered the supply of affordable housing in the North Bay and California at large.

In a way, this is a tale of two competing points-of-view about CEQA. In one corner, CEQA critics decry the law as a leading impediment to building transit-oriented and infill housing in the state—and especially in urban regions such as Los Angeles and the greater North Bay. That’s the gist of a recent legal study by the San Francisco law firm Holland & Knight. The analysis was published in the Hastings Environmental Law Journal.

In the other corner are supporters of CEQA who say those claims are overstated, and perhaps wildly so, and that the real driver behind the region’s struggles to deal with its affordable housing crisis, or any housing for that matter, are the local agencies (zoning boards, planning commissions) that also must sign off on any proposed development.

That’s an argument advanced in another recent report published by UC Berkeley School of Law, called “Getting It Right,” which serves as a handy counterpoint to the Holland & Knight report.

This is more than an academic debate. The discussion comes at a key moment in the North Bay, which is still reeling from last year’s devastating wildfires that destroyed more than 5,000 homes in the region, making an acute housing crisis even worse.

Read more at https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/the-sword-and-the-shield/Content?oid=6374283