Richardson Grove project opponents are gaining support from the outside.
The Albany City Council voted Monday to approve a resolution urging Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to rescind the Caltrans project to widen the road through Richardson Grove, with two councilmembers abstaining.
Despite it being a Humboldt County-based project, Albany -- a city in the San Francisco Bay Area -- is the first municipality to officially weigh in on the matter. The Albany council is forwarding the resolution to other Alameda cities and the Association of Bay Area Government, in hopes others follow their lead.
Although the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors approved a letter on May 4 detailing the concerns of about 50 project opponents who stormed a board meeting in April, it seems no municipality in Humboldt County has officially taken a stance. The letter detailed environmental, circulation and project transparency issues.
Albany Councilman Robert Lieber, a frequent grove visitor, sponsored the resolution and said he had hoped that Humboldt County residents could stop the project.
”Since this is a state park, since this is a property of all in California, I feel like the people who are affected by this should have their voice heard,” he said before the meeting on Monday.
The project, supported by many in the business community, is meant to solve transportation issues on a narrow stretch of U.S. Highway 101. The project involves cutting down several trees for the realignment of the road to allow larger cargo trucks to pass. Although Caltrans has said the cut trees will not be old-growth redwoods, critics said there are other consequences.
During the meeting, Lieber said he does not support the kind of big box economic growth the project is paving the way for.
”To export that kind of philosophy north, from the bay area, from L.A., is just the wrong-headed idea,” he said.
Vice Mayor Farid Javandel and Councilwoman Peggy Thomsen chose to abstain from the voting. Thomsen said she thought the resolution was not enough action. She vowed to contact the governor personally, and encouraged others to do the same.
Javandel said he supported the spirit of the resolution and a part of him wished they could “let the road disintegrate” so that the grove would not be disturbed at all, but said he was not comfortable taking a stand against a project he had questions about.
”There's holes in my understanding,” he said, questioning why the project was being done when trucks can receive exemptions.
Several members of the public spoke in favor of the project, including Southern Humboldt resident and former Albany business owner Bob Stern, who described the grove as a “magical place.”
Caltrans District 1 Director Charles Fielder said he is surprised the item is receiving attention from Albany, and said he thinks the public has been misinformed about the magnitude of the project. He said it's been a long-standing project for the state.
”The work that is being proposed is very minor in nature,” he said. “I'm actually quite proud to say we've come up with a very creative solution for a very real transportation problem.”
He said the project will not remove any old-growth redwoods and arborists will be on site to monitor the work, which is being done by hand in order to have minimal impacts to the trees' root system.
The realignment work will occur in the structural root zone of 74 redwood trees, according to the project's environmental impact report.
Lieber, who said he owns property in the Trinity Alps and often drives through the grove, said removing any of the trees and adding the retaining wall will be a loss for the area.
”They're going to ruin the ambiance of the entire grove and it's just not going to be the same,” he said. “And it's a project we can't afford. The cities are having problems, the state's grabbing funds. There are other things Caltrans can be doing.”
The project will cost about $5.7 million to construct and $4.4 million in mitigation costs, according to the State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP). A majority of this program is funded through the federal government and a portion through the state.
On June 17, a coalition of environmental groups and local citizens filed suit in San Francisco Superior Court against Caltrans in protest of the Richardson Grove project. The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) is a lead organization in the suit, which was filed less than a month after the final environmental impact report was released.
EPIC Outreach Director Kerul Dyer said she's heard from people all over the state that are interested in the project, and the resolution only furthers the notion that this is a statewide issue. She hopes this resolution will be the first of many.
”Unlike the impression that Caltrans would have us believe, people do care about it and it does have a major impact,” she said.
Dyer said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are in mandatory settlement discussion, but there continues to be concern over the roots system.
Fielder said he recognizes that there are residents who don't agree with Caltrans' findings, but the parties are continuing discussions to see if they can reach a consensus on the project's mitigation. He said the agency has already made additional changes due to public concern and would consider more changes if they can minimize impact.
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