Neighborhoods at “every level of rebuilding possible”
Susan Miron hopes to have her foundation poured by April. The Treehaven Court resident is replacing her old house, which burned in the 2017 Nuns fire, with a customized prefab home, but recent rains have caused delay. Miron’s neighbors, Jim and Sammie Lee, who used the same builder, expect to move into their new prefab home later this month. Further up on Treehaven Lane, the DiPieros moved into their stick-built home last month, the first in the neighborhood to do so. Of the more than 30 lots in the neighborhood, more than half show signs of rebuild activity. One lot is for sale, two have sold, and a few neighbors are waiting, still unsure if they will rebuild at all.
“Our neighborhood is at every level of rebuilding possible,” said Miron, who has lived in Kenwood since 1977, raising her three children here.
As house frames rise up from the soil, like daffodils signaling spring, the neighborhood has an overall feel of forward momentum. Top neighbor concerns have moved from debris removal to issues with getting water service, a sign of some sort of progress.
Regular neighborhood gatherings, which Miron and another neighbor, Mary Caughey, have been organizing since the fire, have provided a space for neighbors to gather, share, air frustrations, and find unity. People who haven’t gone through this just don’t understand the grieving process that goes along with it, said Miron.
“The fact that we’ve all come together as neighbors is important,” she said. Prior to the fire, Miron, a widow, said neighbors didn’t have much contact beyond a friendly wave or two. “But now we are really communicating with each other.”
“I didn’t know Mary before the fire, but she literally saved my life by calling me that night. My house was on fire as I left it.”
Miron has also found value in attending county-hosted “neighborhood captain” meetings for almost a year – in other words, acting as liaison between the county and the community, relaying neighbor questions, and disseminating the information provided by Supervisor Susan Gorin’s office. Volunteer “neighborhood captains” represent neighborhoods that are rebuilding throughout the first district, from Cavedale and Trinity to Bennett Ridge, Mark West Springs and Wallace Road.
“I really put effort into finding out as much as I can because there is so much money at stake,” said Miron. “I’m also the only single person I know who is doing this.”
“These meetings bring other benefits beyond just factual knowledge,” wrote Supervisor Susan Gorin in her January district newsletter. “As a fellow fire survivor, hearing from these representatives about their and their neighbor’s triumphs and struggles helps me personally work through my own issues with my rebuild.” Gorin’s home in Oakmont was one of two burned in the 2017 fires.
Gorin has reported that she, like the vast majority of fire survivors, was underinsured.
Further complicating matters are myriad rebuilding obstacles driving costs higher than anticipated – like the number of “building code upgrades” older house designs require (the Sonoma County Building Department didn’t exist until 1962); plus increasing material, labor and construction costs, as well as their availability.
To compensate, some rebuilders are downsizing. At the close of 2018, 66 Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) were either under construction or had been completed in the first district. ADU square footage can vary based on lot size and water and septic availability. On a parcel of two acres or more, a maximum ADU size is 1,200 square feet.
When faced with rebuilding his family home, longtime Kenwoodian Paul Kolling chose the ADU route. The Schultz Road resident is the first in his neighborhood of about a dozen to complete rebuilding; he expects to move in later this month after the county’s final inspections. Kolling replaced his historic 1920s house with a new 1,000-square-foot ADU and a 400-square-foot studio unit, which together will total the square footage of the old one. Kolling said the hardest part of the rebuild was keeping paperwork moving through Permit Sonoma, the county permit department. In one instance involving obtaining the permits to install the fire sprinklers now required by the county, he got four different answers each time he visited, and at one point they had lost his permit altogether. “Bird-dog the permit center. Because if you don’t bird-dog them, you aren’t going to get the info you need,” he said.
Kolling is thankful he is self-employed, an apple farmer and owner of Nana Mae’s Organics. With insurance money already in the bank, he could afford the necessary time and flexibility, without affecting his business too much.
“It’s little things that make a difference, and if you’ve never done it before, it’s a big learning curve.”
It’s a learning curve for not only the fire survivors rebuilding, but also for those considered more “expert” in the rebuilding process. “Most architects have never dealt with a complete rebuild from a major disaster, so there were some surprises there,” said Mike Witkowski, who lives on O’Donnell Lane in Glen Ellen. Those surprises included the amount of inspections required during each step, or having a geologist onsite during the build. Witkowski’s neighbors, Marge Everidge and Archie Horton, are still awaiting the delivery of their two modular homes, months later than expected. “Modular housing was thought to be faster, but when people started to go through the permit process, I’m not sure they met all the [environmental] requirements,” said Witkowski. Now, the cranes that are used to lift the modular homes into place will have to wait for less muddy conditions.
However, the fire strengthened an already tight-knit neighborhood; it’s the reason the majority of the more than 15 home owners are rebuilding, despite the majority of them also being underinsured. “We’ve been here for such a long time, it’s a close neighborhood,” said the retired Dunbar Elementary School teacher who moved to Glen Ellen in 1975. Four houses, including Witkowski’s own, were getting their roof joists put on between breaks in the rain on March 7. Witkowski said he hopes to move in by August, but knows it’s best to “add a few months.”
Witkowski, who, like Miron, has been attending monthly neighborhood captains meetings, has found value in the shared experience. “It’s good to sit down with people going through the same process and see where we’re all at, where we hit a wall with different things. It’s nice to know you’re not alone in this.”
Last October, when the Witkowskis hosted a gathering on the anniversary of the fire, 40 neighbors showed up.
“It’s been a long process,” said Witkowski, taking a deep breath. “But the turning point was when the county cleared the lots. Then it felt like we are not living in a disaster zone anymore. We were living in a rebuild zone.”
Rebuilding by the numbers
(Data as of March 9, 2019)*
Building permits applied for/issued - 63
Those “in construction” - 39
“Construction completed” - 1
Dwellings (SFD) - 50
Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) - 13
Building permits as a percent of all homes burned in last the Nuns Fire - 45 percent
(Official numbers released by Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue confirm that 140 residences burned in Kenwood, 183 in Glen Ellen, three in Eldridge, 48 in the Mayacamas area, and 33 in Schell-Vista.)
Building permits applied for/issued - 85
Those “in construction” - 51
“Construction completed” - 1 (a bridge on O'Donnell Lane)
SFD - 72
ADU - 12
Building permits as a percent of all homes burned in the Nuns Fire - 46 percent
(Data includes 15 permits applied for in the Mayacamas area on Trinity and Cavedale roads.)
Building permits applied for/issued - 58
Those “in construction” - 36
“Construction completed” - 1
SFD - 52
ADU - 6
Building permits applied for/issued - 1025
“In construction” - 637
“Construction complete” - 61
SFD - 803
ADU - 71
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.