County may save four trees

The county may be able to save two – and maybe four trees – from the county’s chain saws, as the Highway 12 sidewalks and streetlights project along the Highway 12 corridor from Boyes Boulevard to Agua Caliente Road, prepares for construction.

Originally, a contractor was supposed to start felling 76 trees and shrubs, including 20 large oaks and a huge eucalyptus along the corridor last week, but the cutting was put on hold while a walkthrough was conducted last Friday.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin invited biologist Caitlin Cornwall and Will Pier to accompany her and some county employees, including Tom O’Kane, deputy Public Works director, to look at some of the condemned trees and explain why they were slated for cutting.

The county wants to get the cutting started soon before nesting season for birds begins. If the trees aren’t felled by the start of nesting season, it would put at least a six-month halt to a project that has already been on hold for almost two years.

While the group was walking the highway, one resident, Patty Moore, came out of her house imploring, “Don’t stop the sidewalks. I fear for my life. I’m on board for more tree planting, but please don’t stop the sidewalks.”

Moore said she’s lived in the Springs for close to 20 years and her children went to the Sonoma Charter School. “I’ve been trying to get sidewalks since I moved here,” she said.

Another resident, who was working on his porch less than a block later on, also said he wanted the sidewalks to go in.

When the group reached one large oak that was estimated to be more than 100 years old, O’Kane said the tree would be straddling the curb. Cornwall suggested the possibility of a bulb-out, in which the curb goes around a tree, but O’Kane said it couldn’t be done because it’s a Caltrans road, not a county road. “In cities, there are bulb-outs, but this isn’t a city or a county road,” he said. And he indicated that Caltrans wouldn’t sign off on a bulb-out.

The county has had issues with Caltrans about the project all along. In Phase I, from Encinas Avenue to Boyes Boulevard, Caltrans signed off on five-foot-wide sidewalks. When Phase II, from Boyes Boulevard to Agua Caliente Road, was resurrected, Caltrans had changed its tune and wanted eight-foot-wide sidewalks. After some negotiations, the county was allowed to keep the five-foot-wide sidewalks in Phase II.

Monday, Cornwall said what she took away from the walkabout was mostly “bad news.”

“County staff has done the best they could,” she said. “But Caltrans is a bad partner.”

She said she was optimistic about some things in the future because the county has gotten a $450,000 planning grant from ABAG (the Association of Bay Area Governments) to make the new Highway 12 corridor more people-friendly, including planting replacement trees and placing bike racks and benches.

“There’s a price to be paid for a delay,” she admitted. “But there’s such a contrast between what the state says it stands for and how Caltrans has acted.”

“The county went after these funds and are trying to make the best out of a very bad deal,” she said.

Pier too thought Caltrans is a bad partner.

“I’m discouraged that Caltrans is so unwilling to compromise with a four-foot sidewalk and a curve rather than the five-foot ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirement,” he said. “I wish we could have saved three or four more trees.”

But Pier is encouraged that there will be replacement planting and he hopes for some additional crosswalks.

Gorin said, with the exception of a couple of trees that the county may be able to save, the work will proceed as scheduled.

“Tom (O’Kane) is out there this morning with a can of black spray paint painting over some of the red Xs,” she said.

She said she’s focusing on the future and the $450,000 planning grant.

“This will give us a chance for tree and vegetation replacement and we can plan for what sort of vibrant activity we’d like to see along the corridor,” she said.

The grant money will let the county do more effective community outreach before and during construction and would include a visioning process. And it wouldn’t be for just Phase II, Gorin said. “It’s for both sides of Highway 12 from Agua Caliente Road down to Verano Avenue,” she added.

“This is an exciting time for the Springs,” she added.

She said while she’d like to see trees saved, some of the trees would be falling into the roadway or onto the sidewalk.

But for the time being, Gorin said the project is on schedule and she’s hopeful that construction will begin sometime in April, May or June.

Once construction starts, it will take about a year to complete.