The Long Road Home : Construction: Fewer than a dozen of the 321 houses destroyed by the Laguna Beach-Emerald Bay fire have been rebuilt. An expert in the field is not surprised by the pace.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Custom home builder Robert Carey said he became concerned after several neighbors who lost homes to last October's devastating brush fire pledged to be back in their homes within a year.

Carey, who has been building homes in Laguna Beach for 25 years, suspected that most fire victims were underestimating the incredibly time-consuming process needed to design, permit and build a replacement home. So he devised a timeline for a typical 2,000-square-foot home sitting on a lot with no known geological faults--the best rebuilding circumstances for which an owner could hope.

The result: Construction alone would eat up eight or more months. Planning and permitting could take longer than six months if projects were subjected to Laguna Beach's design and review process, which requires a full examination by the city Planning Commission.

Building plans that don't dramatically expand a home's size or affect a neighbor's view can be cleared by the planning department staff. If size and height restrictions are met, the review process could consist of just one public meeting.

"I tried to show them that, in most cases, if they started (to build) that very day, the earliest they could move in would be January (1995)," Carey said. "For a lot of them, it was going to mean a whole year before they even broke ground."

Carey was right.

A year after the fire, fewer than a dozen of the 321 homes destroyed in Laguna Beach and the neighboring Emerald Bay development have been rebuilt. Perhaps 30 additional homes will be completed, Carey estimated, before the vast majority of fire victims even enter the municipal permitting process. But the city has stuck to its promise to speed up the time it takes to get permits, in part by hiring a San Diego-based company to help review designs.

Public attention rightfully has focused on those who lost homes. But the fire also created a window of opportunity for builders, designers, architects and engineers who are helping rebuild the destroyed neighborhood atop Laguna Beach.

Immediately after the fire, residents said, the area was overrun by out-of-area builders who were trying to snare reconstruction contracts. But local contractors and architects, who depend upon hard-won reputations for their jobs, tended to take a low-key approach to winning jobs.

"When you get most of your work by word-of-mouth, you want to make sure that the job you do is a good one," Carey said. "That means finding skilled tradesmen, making sure that geological surveys and (designs) are adequate."

So far, there has been no dramatic shortage of laborers or materials, according to contractors and architects. But that situation could change as hundreds of homeowners begin to rebuild during the next year.

Carey was not trying to discourage fire victims when he unveiled his pessimistic timeline.

Indeed, the 45-year-old Laguna Beach resident shared in the anguish when the Oct. 27 wildfire roared through town. He battled flames, strong winds and flagging water pressure throughout that night, saving his custom home from flames that singed nearby trees. He agonized with two relatives and several good friends who lost homes nearby.

"It's an emotional fight, just getting money from the insurance company," said Carey, who is rebuilding 12 homes for fire victims. "And at the same time, these people are supposed to be counting how many salt and pepper shakers they used to have, they're trying to gather up a (home) design team."

(So far, insurance companies have made at least partial settlements on 2,600 fire-related claims and have agreed to make payments of $350 million.)

Some of the fire victims who have rebuilt within 12 months of the fire trimmed design and construction time by adhering to relatively simple plans that avoided the time-consuming design and review process or by reusing parts of their old foundations.

But most homeowners were unable to save their foundations--and others were forced to pour tons of concrete to anchor new foundations to bedrock. Carey, for example, is building two homes that are anchored by a total of 52 caissons--or 100 cubic yards of concrete. Carey has built a few custom homes in Orange County each year since the late 1960s.

One measure of Laguna Beach's revival is the slow-but-sure process of restoring electrical power to the devastated lots. Within days of the fire, Southern California Edison restored power to 23,000 customers who lost service when power poles and lines burned down, said Steven Nelson, Edison's area manager for Laguna Beach.

By the middle of this month, Edison had restored full service to six rebuilt homes. It also installed temporary poles to provide power to construction crews on 87 lots. Electric utilities won't restore full service "until after homeowners get a final inspection from the city or county saying that it's OK to energize it," Nelson said.

About a dozen homeowners, deciding to forgo rebuilding, have put their fire-scarred lots in Laguna Beach up for sale. And potential buyers are starting to surface.

"One lot, which was listed at $205,000, is in escrow," said Lee Schapel, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Laguna Hills. "And I hope to close on one soon that should sell for about $210,000." Schapel said that land and home prices are lower than in recent years, as is the case in all of Southern California, but that the total number of home sales seems to be rising.

Owners are asking $200,000 and more for lots that can accommodate 2,500-square-foot homes, though prices increase noticeably for larger lots with better ocean views. And the cost of new homes being constructed varies dramatically: Some are reportedly being built for $200,000 or less while others cost upward of $1 million.

And, the number of lots for sale will likely increase as weary homeowners decide not to rebuild. "I've talked to quite a few owners who want to sell but whose lots aren't on the market yet," Schapel said. "I'm advising them to hold onto them, if possible, for a few years. As more come on the market, the prices will be driven down."

Fire victims have good reason to walk away; many say they have been pulled in many different directions since the fire.

Immediately after the fire, Red Cross volunteers were demanding information to gauge the extent of relief efforts. Similarly, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were adamant that victims complete disaster forms, and insurance companies were urging them to begin the mind-numbing task of compiling an inventory of their losses. After newspapers published names and addresses of those who lost homes, homeowners were deluged with sales calls from potential builders and subcontractors.

In the midst of putting their lives back together, homeowners who chose to rebuild also were fielding questions from architects, interior designers and building contractors. The pressure, professionals say, is sometimes too difficult for homeowners to bear.

"The design process is really something that people should enjoy," said architect Brion Jeannette. "They really should have the time to fall in love with (the idea of a new home.) It's a shame that it's part of a process that's so emotionally taxing."

Even absent a devastating fire, building a home can be an emotional experience. "As joyful as it can be, there are times in the process that are very stressful," said Laguna Beach architect Daniel Martinez, who is designing seven fire replacement homes. "I see myself as more of an educator, helping them understand what is possible."

Architects report that some homeowners--including several longtime residents--are content with designs that stick close in spirit and character to the homes they lost.

But others "have been able to view this as an opportunity to project something new," said Laguna Beach architect Horst Noppenberger, who is designing five homes, including one on Pacific Avenue that recently won a local design contest.

The award-winning house taking shape at Pacific Avenue and Skyline Drive will have a roof that appears to float above glass walls. The design incorporates "the clear feeling of upward force created by the profile of the surrounding hills," Noppenberger said.

Doug and Rebecca Wood owe their showcase home--the only fire home to win such an award--to a bit of serendipity. Doug Wood, 37, stumbled upon Noppenberger's Forest Avenue office just days after the fire as his wife shopped for new clothing at the nearby Laura Downing shop.

The Woods were adamant that their home be rebuilt quickly, so Noppenberger advised them to stick with a design that wouldn't be subject to much City Hall scrutiny. The Woods agreed to meet height and size restrictions--thereby escaping the lengthy review process--and, by February, they had agreed upon the final design.

The couple, along with 6-week-old son Trevor, now hope to move into their new home in early May.

In retrospect, builder Carl Akins, whose own Emerald Bay home suffered $60,000 in damage during the fire, said many homeowners who opted to stay in Laguna Beach were overly optimistic about the time it would take to rebuild.

Akins saved his house from almost certain destruction when he circumvented police barricades on the day of the fire by boarding a boat in Newport Harbor and then swimming ashore near his home.

Akins used a garden hose to hold back the flames that devoured three nearby houses. The fire that destroyed Akins' landscaped yard and outdoor furniture also destroyed part of the home's roof.

Homes in the exclusive neighborhood of Emerald Bay range in price from $600,000 to $2 million, while replacement costs for a custom home range from $125 to $200 per square foot.

Akins, who's been building custom homes for 20 years, quickly repaired the relatively minor damage to his own home.

But it has a slower-than-anticipated process for eight other homes that his company is rebuilding in Emerald Bay. Seven homes are under construction and work on another is about to begin. Construction on three homes in Laguna Beach that Akins' company is rebuilding is also about to begin.

"A year ago I thought we'd be under construction within six months," Akins said, "but in fact, it took 10 or 11 months."

Akins blames three bottlenecks for slowing reconstruction in Emerald Bay: Customers have invariably taken longer than anticipated to settle with insurance companies. Orange County, which has jurisdiction over Monarch Bay, has been slow to issue grading permits. And, Akins acknowledged that he may have been overly optimistic about the ability of fire victims to start the arduous process of rebuilding.

"Imagine if you went home and found your house burned to the ground, and you have to remember every single thing you had in the house for the insurance company," Akins said. "It's not easy, because everyone's been traumatized. There's a lot more to rebuilding their lives . . . than just a house."

The past year also has been difficult for residents in those neighborhoods who didn't lose homes.

"It's all been very emotional," Akins said. "First you lived without neighbors for 10 months and now you have the noise, noise, noise from the big construction equipment. It's been tough. But it's now a year later and we're coming back."

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