Springs roundabout rocks Valley traffic

Sonoma Valley motorists registered car-stopping surprise Monday and Tuesday when they encountered a giant construction crane lowering boulders the size and approximate shape of a Toyota Prius on to the raised island inside the circle of the new Arnold Drive roundabout at Agua Caliente Road.

For drivers familiar with roundabouts in other locations, the first surprise was the high, sharp curbs and the elevated mound, encircled by cement blocks with a rock façade, that suddenly occupied the center of the roundabout circle. Conventional roundabouts typically have rounded curbs and low center mass so that drivers can see opposing traffic from across the circle, and so large trucks have room for error in passage through.

But according to Mollyanne Meyn, a Sonoma Valley native and owner of Mira Landscape company who designed the circle feature, this roundabout has a somewhat different purpose.

“The parameters of this roundabout are a little different,” she said on Tuesday, while watching an operator from Summit Crane lower a sofa-sized boulder into the emerging rock scape of the roundabout circle. “The idea here was to obstruct the view,” she explained. “The idea was to slow traffic down. When you see it, it’s quite clear and obvious your car needs to slow down.”

Indeed. The assortment of boulders adorning the circle includes one weighing 22 tons, another weighing 18 tons, and several smaller pieces, each weighing multiple tons. Together, they tower over the road surface by at least 10 feet.

Meyn said she has had her eye on these rocks for a long time. “I’ve been driving past those rocks for years and years,” she said, seeing them in the yard of Johnson Ornamental & Building Stone, on Santa Rosa Avenue in Santa Rosa.

Meyn said she grew up in Boyes Hot Springs and that “culturally and horticulturally, there’s a lot of ruggedness in the Valley. I was trying to mimic the natural landscape.”

Meyn said the final configuration came together late in the project. “Rocks are so organic. I wasn’t sure what rocks I would use until the bed was made. I wanted rocks that somehow talk to each other. I’m hoping it is dramatic and uplifting.”

A press release from the Sonoma County Transportation and Public Works Department credits Hanna Boys Center with contributing close to $500,000 for roundabout land and its artistic centerpiece. But Tom Angstadt, a member of the Hanna board of directors and chair of the Kivelstadt Group, a commercial real estate development company, said Thursday that the valuations were arbitrary estimates and that Hanna had contractually agreed to donate portions of land it owned at three of the four corners of the Arnold Drive-Agua Caliente Road intersection as part of the permitting agreement for its $15 million capital improvement project.

At the time, Hanna did not know that the final configuration for the intersection would involve a roundabout, but understood that the intersection reconstruction would also involve improvements to the center’s entrance.

Angstadt also said the center’s contribution to the centerpiece design in the roundabout circle involved donated services and that, to his knowledge, Hanna paid no out-of-pocket money for the work. “Hanna has not a put a cent in this thing,” he said. “We were just an adjacent landowner trying to facilitate the plan the county wanted. I have no idea what the value of that land was.”

Hanna, he said, has agreed to maintain the landscaping and watering of the roundabout area.

The design Meyn proposed was vetted by county officials and approved by the Board of Supervisors. Acknowledging it may stir controversy, Angstadt observed, “It’s there. It’s built. I think two years from now, it’s going to look great.”

Meyn admitted it may take people a while to get the picture, which will eventually include a lush carpet of flowers and other greenery, with the bare rocks nestled into the surrounding landscape.

“I felt the risk when I designed it,” she said. “I’m going to have to drive by it every day. I hope people get it.”

One other element will be added sometime in the near future – a memorial feature dedicated to Gen. Hap Arnold, father of the modern Air Force who retired to Sonoma and for whom Arnold Drive is named. The memorial will be built on Hanna property with the blessing of grandson Robert and Kathy Arnold, and will reportedly include a flagpole and an array of five stars, commemorating Hap Arnold’s status as a five-star general.