California wine country fires leave homeowners struggling

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Construction crews have already put up the frame on Cheri Sharp’s new house, but she still questions whether rebuilding was the right choice after California’s most destructive wildfire took her old home in wine country nearly a year ago.

She’s had to dip into retirement savings to cover a $300,000 shortfall in her homeowner’s insurance coverage.

“We just kind of thought we were taken care of,” Sharp, 54, said about her insurance policy. “If I had to do it over again, I’d probably change my mind and move.”

The wind-whipped wildfire that tore through Northern California in October 2017, killing 22 people and destroying more than 5,500 structures, left many people in Sharp’s position: underinsured and having to scramble for money to build a new home on their property.

Santa Rosa was the hardest-hit city, with entire neighbourhoods burned to ashes. But as of late August, only nine of nearly 2,700 single-family homes lost here had been rebuilt, according to figures from the city’s permitting office. Another 520 or so were under construction.

Many homeowners say they are locked in negotiations with insurance companies for additional money to cover the cost of building a home at the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, where a technology boom has sent home prices skyrocketing. That, coupled with competition among neighbours for construction crews and materials, has left many homeowners hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red.

For Santa Rosa native Alex Apons, 34, the insurance shortfall on his home in the tidy Coffey Park neighbourhood was $200,000. He and his wife wanted to stay because they had a baby on the way and both have deep family roots in the area. They used every insurance dollar they received to pay off the mortgage of their 4-year-old home that burned. There was nothing left for a down payment on construction.

“We had to drain our bank account,” said Apons, now father to a 5-month-old boy, Etienne. “After everything is built, we’re looking at a monthly payment on that loan that’s $1,000 more than what our mortgage was before.”

Other fire victims are still torn by indecision that has kept them from committing to a rebuild — do they stay and bear the costs or start over elsewhere?

“The idea of leaving California is very hard, but on the other hand, I don’t know if I can recover from all the trauma of it without removing myself from all the stimuli,” said Katherine Gaynor, 67, also a former Coffey Park resident.

Besides the Santa Rosa blaze, several other major wildfires the same month took out thousands of homes elsewhere in Sonoma County and in neighbouring Napa County. As of April, nearly two-thirds of those fire victims wanted to rebuild, but most had yet to settle insurance claims for their property and belongings, according to a survey by United Policyholders, a San Francisco-based non-profit that helps people understand their insurance policies. Two-thirds of respondents reported being underinsured by an average of $317,000.

Insurance industry experts warn that many Californians whose homes have been destroyed in this year’s wildfires also will discover their policies will not cover the cost of a new home, leading to similar rebuilding delays. So far in 2018, wildfires have scorched about 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometres) in parts of Shasta, Trinity, Mendocino, Lake, Colusa and Glenn; more than 1,200 homes have been destroyed, and nine people have died.

Insurance companies value homes using factors including their size, purchase price and the price of homes around them. Few homeowners update their policies annually to keep up with inflation, labour and material costs and home upgrades that increase the value. Insurance companies want to keep premiums low to compete with rivals and attract customers.

When Apons’ wife, Heather, called their insurance company this month to request a new homeowners’ insurance quote, the agent provided a figure that would pay them $340,000 less than the current price tag to reconstruct their house. The agent said better coverage would raise their premium considerably, she recalled.

“I’m like, �I don’t care. I don’t ever want to be underinsured again,”� she said.

After massive fires across Southern California over the past decade, the state Department of Insurance found that insurance companies often understated replacement costs to potential customers and omitted or misrepresented fees for permitting, architects, labour and zoning, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said.

A false sense of security is common among the insured because most rely on insurance companies for details, said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, an advocacy group for insurance consumers.

“If anything, people suspect they’re over-insured,” she said.

Bach said out-of-town insurance adjusters often fail to properly value homes in the San Francisco area. In Sonoma County, property values increase about 10 per cent every year, according to Pacific Union Real Estate, a leading real estate group in the region.

Jim Whittle, chief counsel for trade group the American Insurance Association, said it’s up to consumers to make sure they have enough insurance. After mass catastrophes, “there’s almost always going to be situations where people don’t have quite what they wanted or expected,” Whittle said.

Sharp and her husband, Paul, held hands on a recent morning as they surveyed construction of their new home on the Santa Rosa property where they raised their kids, held backyard parties and enjoyed the sunset. They know their use of retirement savings to fund the project will make it harder to live comfortably and travel as they age.

“Our life from here on out is very different going into our retirement years,” Cheri Sharp said.


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Old cabins demolished at Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva Lodge

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Work crews are demolishing some of the old cabins at the historic Cal Neva (NEE’-vuh) Lodge at Lake Tahoe due to fire and safety concerns.

Andy Chapman, CEO and president of the Incline Village Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau, says the new owners who bought the property on the California-Nevada line in January eventually intend to re-open it as a hotel-casino.

The cabin demolition is expected to conclude this year. Fire officials told the Reno Gazette Journal they’re trying to make the property as safe as possible.

During its heyday in the early 1960s, the hotel-casino owned by Frank Sinatra hosted fellow Rat Packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford, and stars like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.

Monroe spent her last weekend there before she died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles in August 1962.


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Trademark bullies? Many big colleges fiercely protect brands

Never get between a university and its trademarks.

That’s the lesson dozens of people learn every year when they unwittingly provoke the wrath of big universities and the lawyers they hire to protect their mascots, slogans and logos.

Records gathered by The Associated Press show that some major universities send their lawyers after even slight perceived threats to their brands, sending flurries of letters threatening legal action or trying to block new trademarks deemed too close to their own.

Schools say they’re only defending themselves from merchandise counterfeiters and others looking to exploit their brands for personal gain. But some legal experts say it often amounts to trademark bullying, a term used when bigger institutions use aggressive tactics to overpower their opponents in seemingly frivolous disputes.

And according to some lawyers, it appears to be getting more common. As the biggest universities bring in growing sums of money through licensing deals that rely on their brands, some are becoming increasingly aggressive in their efforts to protect their symbols.

“Universities for many years didn’t even register trademarks or really care about branding,” said David Ludwig, a Virginia trademark lawyer, noting that things changed after a “brand awareness awakening” in the 2000s. “Now a lot of big universities, especially ones in the major sports leagues, are kind of on par with your Coca-Colas in terms of their enforcing.”

The Associated Press reviewed dozens of disputes detailed in records obtained from universities and from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A look at a few of them:


Duke this year blocked a small California wine company from getting a trademark on its own name, Duke’s Folly. In a legal filing with the federal trademark office, Duke argued that the name “deceptively and falsely” implied an official tie to the North Carolina school and would cause confusion among consumers.

The family, named the Dukes, disagrees. Kirk Duke, a company spokesman, said it’s “absurd” to think the Duke’s Folly wine would be confused with Duke University. But rather than risk a costly legal battle, the family agreed to a settlement requiring it to drop the trademark claim and tweak the name of the company, to Dukes’ Folly.

Separately, the school is also trying to block trademarks for a Seattle restaurant chain called Duke’s Chowder House (the owner’s name is Duke), a Chicago metal band called Devils (the school’s sports teams are named the Blue Devils), and a boxing equipment company that wants rights to “Put Up Your Dukes” (the owner’s last name is Dukes).

Officials at Duke say they have to prevent other uses that could cause confusion, even if it isn’t intentional.

“We find it’s much easier to proactively prevent confusion than to cure it after it happens,” said Jim Wilkerson, the school’s director of trademark licensing.


NC State calls its sports teams the Wolfpack — and won’t let anybody else. Armed with a trademark of the nickname, the university has forced at least two other schools to stop using it, including New York’s Keuka College, which now uses the Wolves nickname, and Loyola University New Orleans, which simply shifted to the Wolf Pack.

Records provided by NC State show it has also pressured several businesses to stop using the name. In 2016, it went after a convenience store in Raleigh, North Carolina, called the Wolfpack Mini Mart, which has since closed. Last year, it ordered California beer maker Golden Road Brewing to stop advertising its wolf-themed beers as the “Wolf Pack.” Federal records show both sides reached a settlement, but neither would provide details.


In 2016, Texas A&M University asked federal trademark officials to cancel a trademark that its own alumni association had registered for the slogan “We Are The Aggie Network.” The school, which owns several trademarks related to its Aggies nickname, argued that it was the “true and rightful owner” of the phrase and that the alumni group never had permission to register it.

After pressing the case for months, the school reached a deal allowing the group to keep the slogan.

The same year, Texas A&M forced a man in nearby Bellaire, Texas, to halt his plans to produce a beer called 12th Can. The school said it was too similar to 12th Man, the school’s trademarked nickname for its sports fans. Records provided by A&M show it paid $6,000 to buy trademark rights “and other considerations” from the man, Erik Nolte. Neither side would provide further details about the deal.


Youth basketball organizers in Minneapolis had to rename a small tournament called the Spring Jam in 2014 after the University of Minnesota objected. In a letter, the school said it owned a trademark for its own Spring Jam, an annual festival, and worried the tournament would cause confusion with it.

When the University of Tennessee tried getting trademarks for then-football coach Butch Jones’ slogan “Brick By Brick” in 2014, the University of Minnesota sent its lawyers to stop it. In a letter, they noted that Minnesota’s coach, Jerry Kill, had been using the slogan for years, and ordered Tennessee to stop using it immediately. More than a year later, the schools signed an agreement allowing both to use the phrase on merchandise and advertisements, but only if it’s accompanied by their respective school colours.

Last year, Minnesota also ordered the new British liquor company Goldy Gin to stop using the word Goldy and abandon its trademark applications for the name. The problem? Minnesota’s mascot is Goldy Gopher, and the school said consumers would think Goldy Gin products were licensed by the university. The company dropped its trademark application this month. Its lawyer and founder did not return messages seeking comment.


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