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Santa Rosa opens door for new housing in fire-ravaged Fountaingrove

Two months after narrowly rejecting a developer’s plan to build new townhomes in an area twice devastated by wildfire in 53 years,

Santa Rosa is paving the way for a new 237-unit Fountaingrove project after receiving reassurances it would be built to the strictest fire codes in the state.

The City Council in December deadlocked 3-3 on a request by San Francisco-based City Ventures to rezone a vacant 40-acre Round Barn Boulevard property from business park to medium-density residential.

The Tubbs fire, which destroyed 5,130 homes in the county in early October, decimated the area, including the historic Round Barn for which the project is named.

Several council members initially expressed hesitation about putting more people in harm’s way without more details about the Round Barn Village project or a better sense of what building codes would apply.

After Fire Marshall Scott Moon outlined the strictness of fire codes in the area for new construction, and the developer committed to meeting or exceeding those standards, the council had a change of heart.

It approved the rezoning on a 6-1 vote last week, and appears poised to confirm that in a second vote today.

Councilman John Sawyer said that when a community with urban growth boundaries like Santa Rosa needs more housing, land-use changes need to happen within existing city limits to accommodate that housing, which he said can be “painful.”

“I think this is an example of the difficulty that a community goes through when it needs large amounts of housing, which we do at historic levels,” Sawyer said.

But Councilwoman Julie Combs stuck to her staunch opposition to the general plan change and rezoning, arguing there are plenty of safer places to put housing, such as downtown.

“We are setting a precedent to build more new housing in a fire hazard area when we vote today,” Combs said. “I just think we need to not put more sleeping people in a fire hazard area.”

Moon outlined how the state building codes related to fire safety have become increasingly stringent over the years, in general — and for areas like Fountaingrove in particular.

The neighborhood is in what is called the Wildland Urban Interface, an area of acknowledged fire danger that was adopted by the city in 2008 for new construction.

In the 1990s, Moon noted that the state identified some sections of east Santa Rosa as Very High Fire Hazard Severity areas.

The restrictions stemming from that, however, were “minimalistic,” focusing largely on good vegetation management practices and things like fire-resistant roofs and spark blockers on chimneys.

Then in the mid-2000s, in response to fires such as the Cedar fire in San Diego, the state took a harder look at fire-resistant building materials and designs, such as vents that limit the intrusion of embers.

Such embers can travel a mile-and-a-half ahead of a wind-driven fire, and can ignite dry material in gutters, under decks, and enter homes through vents, he said.

When the state proposed to dramatically shrink the areas of the city that it considered to be in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity zone, the city in 2008 took a conservative approach and adopted its own wildland interface zone that largely mirrored the state’s original area.

Regulations for such zones were put in place in 2008 to address potential ignition sources, as well as other requirements such as solid-core doors and double-pane windows with at least one layer being tempered glass, and requiring fire-resistant deck materials, Moon explained.

Additional new regulations coming online in mid-2018 would extend the window requirement to skylights and require weather stripping to prevent embers from entering through door gaps, including garage doors, he said.

Of the 1,458 homes destroyed in the wildland fire zone, 97 percent where built before the 2008 code changes, Moon said. He took this as an indication that the homes in the area “didn’t have the resiliency” that new ones will have.

But of the 22 homes built in the area since 2008, only one survived, Combs noted, a fact supporting her sense that the building code improvements since then were insufficient.

“The fire code that’s about to be implemented for this possible project is 10 years old and does not include what we have learned from this fire,” she said.

City Ventures officials were careful not to offer too many details about the project, because it has yet to be designed. They did note that it would be comprised mostly of townhomes, solar powered with electric vehicle charging stations, would not need gas hookups, and would be built in accordance with the latest fire codes.

“We are well aware of these requirements and are committed to meeting and exceeding all of these,” Charity Wagner, director of development, told the council.

Several speakers urged the council to move the project forward, citing the city’s pressing need for more housing.

Landscape architect Mike Cook noted the city had a five-year goal of 5,000 new homes before the fires, which destroyed more than 3,000 in the city.

“I don’t know how we can say no to a project of this magnitude when we have 8,000 units that we need to build in Sonoma County, most in Santa Rosa,” Cook said.