Caltrans updates board on Richardson Grove, says litigation ‘likely’

Times Standard Newspaper: 3/3/15

Supporters and opponents of Caltrans’ Richardson Grove Improvement Project gathered in the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors chamber on Tuesday to hear an update and voice their opinions on the controversial Highway 101 project.

After three lawsuits were filed against the transportation agency concerning the project’s federal and state environmental reviews, Caltrans Project Manager Kim Floyd predicted more of the same.

“We will obtain environmental clearance again and we’ll likely be sued again,” she said.

The project seeks to alter the alignment of 1.1 miles of U.S. Highway 101 through the Richardson Grove State Park in order to allow passage of industry standard-sized trucks that conform to the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, or STAA. STAA trucks are currently prohibited north of Leggett, with ongoing Buckhorn Summit project on State Route 299 working to allow STAA truck access from the east.

Since 2010, two federal lawsuits and one lawsuit at the state level have been filed against the project, with concerns ranging from impacts to the root zones of old-growth redwood trees lining the roadway to impacts of nearby waterways and endangered species. Floyd and two other Caltrans representatives — District 1 Director Charlie Fielder and Deputy District Director for Maintenance and Operations Matt Brady — were at Tuesday’s meeting along with representatives of the Environmental Protection Information Center, which was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits. EPIC Executive Director Natalynne DeLapp said that the controversy of the project is an indication that not all factors have been thoroughly addressed by Caltrans and not fully vetted by the community.

“If we work together on these controversial projects they become less controversial,” she said. Floyd said that Caltrans has held several meetings regarding the project since 2007 and has reviewed over 800 public comments on it. She further said that EPIC declined to attend some of these discussions and filed the lawsuits instead.

The state level litigation eventually went to the Court of Appeal where a judge ruled that Caltrans had to reevaluate its submitted environmental impact report. Floyd said Caltrans expects to have those studies done by this fall. Caltrans agreed to rescind its approval of its federal environmental review in order for the second federal lawsuit to be dropped. Floyd said that if all goes as anticipated, the project will get clearance from the environmental agencies in 2016, with construction beginning in 2017.

One of the main areas of dispute in the litigation was what impact the project would have on old growth redwoods and root zones. Floyd said the project construction would remove about 56 trees, 31 of which would be located in the state park, and with two being redwood trees between 4 to 6 inches in diameter. The largest tree that would be removed would be 26 inches in diameter, with no old growth redwoods being removed, Floyd said.

Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said that protecting old growth is an essential aspect of the project.

“There is reason that projects like this deserve this level of scrutiny,” he said. “If something does go wrong, these redwoods are irreplaceable.”

Second District Supervisor and board Chairwoman Estelle Fennell said there has been confusion over the size and impact of the project.

“It is such a small project that people can’t understand that it’s not going to impact something,” she said.

With Caltrans spending over $1 million in litigation costs since 2010, 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn said the lawsuits are creating what he called the “lawyers’ full employment act.”

“We paid a million dollars for the opposition lawyers,” he said. “The cost of Willits (Bypass Project) has been over $40 million. As it was noted, maybe an ‘i’ hasn’t been dotted and a ‘t’ hasn’t been crossed, but the basics for the project have not changed.”

Bohn said passage of STAA trucks — which could carry up to 53-foot-long trailers — would help improve commerce for businesses in and out of Humboldt County. With trucks being able to haul larger trailers through the park if the project is completed, Bohn said there will be fewer trucks on the roadway, and thus less greenhouse gas emissions.

“I know that doesn’t sound well when you’re trying to raise money to fight these things, but the problem is that is a fact,” Bohn said. “We’re missing the point here. We’re trying to make this safer for our traveling public.”

Barbara Kennedy of Weott said that the project will affect much more than Humboldt County and “only a few businesses.”

“Richardson Grove State Park belongs to the state of California and the people of California,” she said. “It does not belong to the people of Humboldt County exclusively or to a handful of business that are advocating for this. People from all around the world and all around the world come here to appreciate the trees for which the park was originally founded to preserve.”

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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