There are a lot of words to describe Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood: scenic, historic, bucolic, prosperous. But above all: destroyed.
The deadly 2017 Northern California wildfires devastated huge swaths of the North Bay—and, in particular, Santa Rosa. Few neighborhoods were hit as hard as Fountaingrove, one of the areas that’s having the most difficult time rebuilding, with properties still lying fallow more than two years later.
Now some of the fire-ruined lots have returned to the market, in the form of upcoming designer homes listed for millions of dollars. Coldwell Banker offers 18 custom wine country homes in the neighborhood, with asking prices ranging from $1.7 million to $2.8 million for four-bedroom houses measuring up to 4,400 square feet.
A few of the house single-family homes are complete, but most of them remain under construction. Realtor Maryanne Veldkamp tells Curbed SF many of them sell before they’re finished building—in some cases before they’ve even started.
Architect Kevin Farrell of Farrell, Faber, and Associates designed the houses, which are marketed as “luxury homes in harmony with the land” and “built for the Sonoma County lifestyle.”
Custom homes means buyers to have some creative control over the design, making changes to finishes and layouts as building continues—if you’ve bought in advance, of course.
“Not all builders are willing to do that,” Veldkamp tells Curbed SF.
Coldwell Banker even uses virtual reality software to show off the finer points of homes still under construction to would-be buyers. You can check one out here, although it’s not as impressive if you don’t have the proper VR equipment strapped to your head.
Fountaingrove, anchored around a prominent golf course and clubhouse, has long been an upscale neighborhood, noted for its hilly terrain and stellar views. At any other time, homes like these would fit right in.
Santa Rosa history buff Jeff Elliott writes that the neighborhood has its roots in utopian spiritual leader Thomas Lake Harris’ attempts to build an ideal community in the late 19th century. Harris preached that, among other things, he had achieved immortality, and that he was married to the queen of fairies.
Harris died in 1906 (immortality notwithstanding), but Fountaingrove stuck around. In the century following the eccentric guru’s departure, the neighborhood grew by leaps and bounds. But the 2017 Tubbs Fire—at the time the most deadly and destructive California wildfire on record—nearly wiped it off the map.
Of approximately 3,000 Santa Rosa homes lost in the blaze, more than half were located in this neighborhood. Though hundreds of new homes are under construction here, of the more than 600 Santa Rosa properties not yet in the process of rebuilding two years after the fires, the Press Democrat reported that 80 percent were in Fountaingrove.
The rolling terrain and large plots that made the neighborhood popular also make it more difficult and expensive for building. Many former Santa Rosa homeowners had trouble collecting their full fire insurance policies following the blaze or lacked adequate insurance at all, which made starting over again here a daunting prospect.
Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin tells Curbed SF there are lots of reasons people might not have rebuilt in Fountaingrove, including “change of life goals, trauma from the terrifying escape from the fires that night, ability to move to another community using professional experience” and, unfortunately, “significant under-insurance.”
Gorin once lived in Fountaingrove, and the Nuns Fire destroyed her Oakmont home in 2017. She tells Curbed SF that she too has not yet been able to rebuild.
“I have to say, I am exhausted,” says Gorin.
Seeing new homes appear in the formerly devastated neighborhood is a relief, but also a source of anxiety. As Gorin points out, a huge wildfire swept through the Fountaingrove area once before, the 1964 Hanly Fire, which left behind a destructive footprint almost identical to that of the Tubbs Fire.
Fountaingrove is one of the only areas in Santa Rosa that Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, designates a very high fire hazard, due in large part to its arboreal surroundings. Much of the redevelopment happening there is within the perimeter of that fire hazard zone.
Kevin Farrell, the architect of the custom homes project, tells Curbed SF that the current fire standards in place “essentially remove nearly all combustible materials from the exterior surfaces,” favoring “stucco or cementitious material” instead of wood, tempered windows, small vents to help keep out embers, and screens on gutters.
Veldkamp notes that new buyers in the neighborhood all know about the risks and that nobody has backed out over concerns. Anyone with cold feet over the neighborhood’s fiery past looks elsewhere.
Rather than focus on risks, Veldkamp says she looks at the new redevelopment as a story about Santa Rosa’s resurgence and compares the new construction to the aftermath of many Bay Are earthquakes. She notes that when the next major earthquake strikes, we will doubtlessly rebuild right on top of the same fault systems again.
“When people put roots down in an area and are a part of a community and area they love, they take pride in staying and rebuilding their own life,” she says.
A new custom homes finishes construction every 45 days or so, and when they’re all finished there are hundreds of other homes also under construction in this neighborhood, including a large multi-family project by SF developers. Come what may.