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Building permits in Phoenix fire zone grow rapidly

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneHomes are under construction on Barnum Street in Phoenix on Monday.

Buildings permits have been issued in Phoenix for 80% of the single-family residences destroyed in the September 2020 Almeda fire, while 92% of multi-family residences had received permits as of March 2.

The pace of the rebuild has been helped by the city allowing reconstruction to standards at the time a home was originally built and relaxation of a newer setback rule, said Joe Slaughter, city community and economic development director.

Permits have been issued for 93 of 116 units burned, with another seven applications in process. Permits have been issued for 142 of 153 multi-family properties. Redevelopment of manufactured home parks and commercial buildings is occurring at a slower pace.

Earlier studies on rebuilds after fires indicted a 58% rebuild rate in California three to six years after a fire, and a 25% rate nationally. In Paradise, California, which lost 11,000 homes in the November 2018 Camp fire, only 1,092 had been rebuilt by the third anniversary of the fire.

“I think that most of the people, as far as single-family residences … are rebuilding themselves with their insurance,” said Slaughter. “They wanted to get back into their neighborhoods, so I’d say the community identity was a big factor.”

Funding from the state has helped speed the effort. Slaughter went from being the only department employee, at half-time, to full-time, and two more employees were added.

“We couldn’t have done that without their help,” said Slaughter.

“We wouldn’t have seen nearly the number of homes rebuilt. It would have been a big obstacle,” if the setback rules had not been changed, Slaughter said.

Rebuilding is at the 85% level in Sonoma County, California, following the Tubbs fire and others in 2017, said Jennifer Gray Thompson, executive director for After the Fire USA, a nonprofit started to help North Bay counties that now works throughout the nation.

“We are there for a couple of reasons,” said Thompson. She said burned-over land was very desirable for housing, and that the same situation applies in Phoenix and Talent. A block zone captains system was also established that helped speed rebuilding.

“It’s a rare thing for any community to rebuild under seven years,” said Thompson. She said some neighborhoods with stronger advocates are 98% rebuilt, and she excepts full recovery in Sonoma County by 2024. Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties are farther behind, she said.

A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire found that for all wildfires in the nation from 2000 to 2005, only 25% of burned homes were rebuilt within five years. Rebuild rates were higher in the West, the South and Kansas.

A California study conducted with data from 1970 to 2009 and published in the Land Use Policy journal found that 58% of burned buildings were replace in three to six years, and 94% after 13 to 25 years.

A housing shortage in the Rogue Valley also meant that builders were eager to get lots if owners decided not to return, said Slaughter. A small percentage are building homes for sale on speculation, he said.

“Phoenix isn’t an obvious wildfire hazard community, so that might not have been a major concern,” said Slaughter.

“The counties and the cities have this opportunity for rebuilding even if they give up fees and polices in the meantime,” said Thompson. She said it will also mean getting back their tax bases.

Phoenix multifamily units in all but one case are being rebuilt by the same owners. Slaughter said landlords had no problems before the fire renting units and want to get them back in business. One 11-unit structure won’t be rebuilt because the land has been purchased for use as an RV park.

New multi-unit projects are also in Phoenix’s future. Land use approval has been given for 55 units near the Jack in the Box location. A pre-application meeting has also been held for 82 units at the Pacific Plaza, which formerly housed Garrison’s furniture.

Commercial rebuilding is moving at a slower pace. Just five businesses have applied for and received permits out of 41 destroyed by the fire. Those include Phoenix Self Storage, Bear Creek Plaza, Puck’s Donuts and Palm Harbor Village, which will rebuild in their old locations, and Garrison’s, which will not rebuild at its former site but will construct a new store across from Home Depot.

Manufactured homes were lost in 284 spaces in three parks. Building permits have been issued for just 40, or 14%, so far. At Creekside Estates, permits have been issued to replace 21 of 38 destroyed units. In Greenway Village, permits have been given for 12 of 36 units lost.

Oak Ridge, the former Bear Lake Estates, lost 210 units. Permits have been issued for four support buildings there and seven manufactured homes. Slaughter said the pace at Oak Ridge should pick up substantially in the next couple months. A national company, Investment Property Group of Park City, Utah, owns the park.

Major redevelopment work, including infrastructure, has occurred at Oak Ridge. A first phase for 115 units should be done by the end of April, and the park owners have purchased over 100 units from manufacturers for resale to tenants, said Slaughter. He expects to see trailers coming in large numbers over the next few months.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.