Hwy. 12 trees get one-week reprieve

As part of the preparation for the Highway 12 sidewalk and streetlight project that’s expected to go out to bid the first part of March, a sizeable number of trees are going to be felled.

And that’s got some Springs residents riled.

According to Tom O’Kane, the county’s deputy director of Public Works, there are 31 trees that are six-inches around or bigger – including 20 oaks and a 72-inch eucalyptus – along with about 45 smaller trees and shrubs that will be removed.

But the trees won’t be felled this week, as originally planned. First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said she’s talked with O’Kane and had him talk to the contractors and the trees won’t come down until next week. She’s going to meet with O’Kane and take a walk through the affected area with him along the Highway 12 corridor. And Gorin said the discussion will also include opportunities for tree replanting along the corridor.

The trees in question are north of Boyes Boulevard to Agua Caliente Road.

Gorin said the trees need to come down soon – before bird nesting season starts, or it could further delay the Highway 12 project by six months or even a year.

“We knew these trees were going to have to come down,” Gorin said. “It’s always a shock to see oaks with big ‘Xs’ on them.”

“The pace caught me by surprise,” she added.

Springs residents were caught by surprise too.

Caitlin Cornwall, a biologist and a Sonoma Charter School parent, said she saw one of the engineers marking the trees about two weeks ago and chatted with him about the removal.

“I’ve left messages with Public Works but I haven’t heard anything back,” she said.

She said there are ways to design around the trees.

“There are simple design considerations that they can do to save these iconic trees,” she said. “We’re taking trees out of a neighborhood that could use more trees.”

Cornwall said she was told the trees need to come down for the Highway 12 project, but she said there shouldn’t be a choice between safety and trees.

“Those trees are older than any of us will ever be. To design a very wide roadside without deploying any of the simple ways to preserve these trees shows a wrong-headed ordering of priorities,” she said. “Yes, the Springs needs sidewalks. But this is not a black-and-white decision. There is a whole expertise called landscape architecture for layering multiple functions into one design. Preserving large, iconic trees in a public landscape – particularly in a landscape as devoid of trees as Highway 12 in the Springs, is the right thing to do, and it’s not hard.”

But O’Kane said that during Phase I, an arborist surveyed the highway to see where trees could be saved and said there were several in Phase I, but none in Phase II.

“There is at least one location in the first stage where the sidewalk was narrowed to try to accommodate the large tree. The sidewalk is not in compliance with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards. The state allowed it there, but everything must be in compliance in the second phase,” he said. “I doubt that there are any locations where we could pass the five-foot sidewalk behind an existing tree and expect it to survive the trauma of construction.”

And he said that any accommodation that required additional land would push the construction back more than a year.

“Changes of his significance would send us back to the beginning of the review process with Caltrans,” he said.

Anna Pier was equally dismayed.

“This surprised me,” she said. “They accommodated some of the trees in the earlier phase.”

She called the project, “wholesale removal,” and said it would blight the area.

“There’s a long-term effect on nesting birds,” she said. “One property owner told me there are nesting hawks in the eucalyptus tree.”

Pier said she’d like to see as many trees as possible saved.

“It’s so late … nobody knew it was happening,” she added. “We want sidewalks, but didn’t think it would be at the expense of the trees.

“The necessity of sidewalks in this last area of the Springs is unquestionable. But the aesthetic and environmental aspects are also compelling,” she said.“Clearly the wholesale removal of all the big old trees along this stretch of highway disregards both.”

Mike Acker, with the Springs Community Alliance, doesn’t recall receiving any information about the tree removal – nor the scope of it.

“I think there should have been some sort of community input,” he said. “Redevelopment was about safety and removing blight. But removing the trees seems to be going in the wrong direction.”

Acker said he doesn’t think the tree removal does anything for the highway, and thinks the whole thing is a Catch-22.

Gorin agrees that public input was lacking and wants to do something about it during the upcoming construction phase of the project.

“I intend to work on our public outreach,” she said. “We need to do a better job when we get to the bidding, the timeline and the traffic backlog.”

Gorin said she was heartbroken to see the number of trees that will be coming down. “It’s sad to see beautiful trees coming down,” she said. “I love trees. I’ve worked hard to preserve them and I wish I could save them.

“But the first priority is the safety of children and families,” she added.