Mad River Union: 3/11/15
By Daniel Mintz
HUMBOLDT – Court rulings have set back the California Department of Transportation’s Richardson Grove project but the Board of Supervisors’ unanimous support of it has not wavered.
Caltrans officials updated the project’s status at the March 3 board meeting. The project has run into roadblocks in court – a state appeals court ruling decertified its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and, in 2012, a federal judge issued an injunction against its federal environmental review.
Caltrans has agreed to re-do the federal review. Project Manager Kim Floyd told supervisors that the new version will be released this fall.
Construction is expected to begin in 2017 but Floyd said her agency is expecting more lawsuits along the way.
Charlie Fielder, Caltrans’ district manager, said the project’s challenges belie its careful approach and minimal impacts.
“Who would think such a minor amount of work would take as much time and staff resources and generate the kind of controversy it has,” he told supervisors. “Unfortunately, it’s gotten mired down in what I call a lot of bureaucracy and technicalities.”
The project would allow access of standard-sized, 53-foot long truck trailers through Richardson Grove. Floyd said about 56 trees would be removed, 31 of them within Richardson Grove State Park.
Only two redwoods would be cut, she added, one four inches in diameter and the other eight inches.
But work and paving done in the root health zone of 116 redwoods is one of the project’s biggest issues and the appeals court found that it needs additional study.
When Supervisor Rex Bohn asked Floyd how much has been spent on what he called “the lawyers full employment act,” Floyd said her agency has paid out $1 million for opposing attorney’s fees and $8 million has been spent on staff time.
During public comment, Weott resident Barbara Kennedy noted that lawsuits against the project have so far prevailed and she disputed portrayals of the project as being carefully planned.
“It’s obvious that Caltrans did not do a particularly spectacular job with their EIR, otherwise a federal judge would not have issued an injunction citing all the errors in the EIR… not to mention the California Court of Appeals,” she said. “This is not a ‘full attorneys employment act’ or whatever you’re saying – these are legitimate issues that were not responded to in [the EIR’s] public comment.”
Natalynn DeLapp, the executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, one of three environmental groups involved in the lawsuits, said the legal outcomes have shown that Caltrans didn’t “give the consideration that the park deserves.”
She said the lawsuits were filed to ensure protection of a public trust resource and recommended prioritization of infrastructure needs through a public process.
But Floyd said that a “tree by tree analysis” has been done and a professional arborist concluded that the project won’t threaten the health of redwood trees.
Supervisors highlighted the project’s importance to a variety of businesses and expressed confidence that its impacts are limited.
Board Chair Estelle Fennell said perceptions of the project have often been based on misunderstanding. A prevalent belief is that larger redwoods will be cut. “That confusion has grown and clarity is a big issue here,” she continued.
Supervisors encouraged Caltrans to continue its work. In giving his support, Supervisor Ryan Sundberg told Fielder and Floyd, “Thanks for not letting this project die.”