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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.


LAGUNA BEACH — 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.

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