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Dueling Willits bypass rallies; eight arrested

Jon Siller, of Santa Rosa, left, and Chris Snyder, district representative for Operating Engineers Local No. 3, rally in favor of the Highway 101 Willits bypass project Thursday in Willits.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 10:19 a.m.

WILLITS - Eight people were arrested on suspicion of trespassing at the site of the controversial Highway 101 bypass Thursday, as dueling protests downtown and at the construction site rocked the town of 5,000 people.

CHP officers arrested four people near a tree where a Willits woman has been camped out since January, just a few hours before more than 80 union construction workers rallied in downtown Willits to protest repeated construction delays caused by activists opposed to the bypass. Officers arrested four more protesters near two newer tree-sittings later in the day.

Even before Caltrans began construction Feb. 25 on the $210 million bypass, which aims to alleviate traffic congestion and air pollution, the project has stirred heated arguments. Protesters worried the project will damage the environment and hurt local businesses have staged tree-sittings, stood in front of construction equipment and held rallies over the issue.

A 24-year-old Willits woman named Amanda "Warbler" Senseman has been sitting in a pine tree protesting the bypass since Jan. 28, and two new tree-sitters moved into position at the East Hill Road entrance to the site earlier this week. The new tree-sitters, both men whose identities were not available Thursday, are closer to Caltrans' equipment than Senseman.

At least seven of the eight arrested were taken to Mendocino County Jail in Ukiah, where they were cited and released, CHP public information officer Steve Krul said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

Among those arrested were Sara Grusky, Jamie Chevalier and Matt Chandler of Willits, Will Parrish of Ukiah, Elizabeth Reigel of Forestville, Sandra Marshall of Redwood Valley and Tara Dragani, whose city of residence was unknown, Krul said.

Dragani was described by one bystander as being "dragged away kicking and screaming," though CHP declined to say whether she resisted arrest.

Krul also said no arrests had been made before Thursday because Caltrans still had been in negotiations with the protesters.

CHP is on site to make sure Caltrans contractors are protected, along with making sure state property and construction equipment isn't damaged, Krul said.

"It's also equally important to make sure that the protesters are allowed their opportunity to express their First Amendment rights," Krul said.

By mid-afternoon, Grusky and Chevalier had returned to the East Hill Road site and the CHP had arrested an eighth protester, Earth First member Ellen Faulkner. Faulkner, whose hometown was unavailable, had been stationed between the two new tree-sitters before her arrest and stepped in front of a piece of equipment.

During the protest, contractors began installing a fence that eventually will surround the construction site.

Downtown, more than 80 union members gathered at midday under the town's distinctive Willits sign to protest delays caused by activists.

Chris Snyder of Operating Engineers Local No. 3 led a chant on the megaphone, saying "We want jobs, when do we want them? Now!"

Curtis Carlson of Ukiah has been unemployed since May and needs to find work near home to care for his 5-year-old son who has special needs, he said.

"If I can't be home by around 5 or 6 to take care of him, it doesn't work for me," said Carlson, a father of four. "I'm counting on projects that are close by like this bypass."

Dozens of passing cars honked their horns in support.

"We just want to go to work, and this project would bring work back to an industry that needs it," said Dave George, a representative for Laborers Local No. 324. "We're still in the recession, and the construction industry has been hit the hardest."

A group of about 10 counter-protesters stood across the street from the union group, talking on their own megaphone about the environmental impacts of the bypass.

"The bypass is not needed, it's destructive and it's expensive, and it's a monument to the past," said Ellen Drell of Wil-lits. "The community is going to fight it."

Also Thursday, Caltrans officials responded to a letter sent March 5 by state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, requesting a meeting on the bypass. Evans' letter outlined five points of concern ranging from traffic management to safety issues involving emergency access along the bypass route.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty's five-page response to Evans listed the bypass project's numerous supporters and detailed an extensive planning process.

Later Thursday, Evans issued a news release in response to Dougherty, saying she looked forward to meeting with Caltrans officials April 2.

Evans' statement appeared to distance her from the protesters.

"Protesters have been asked to disperse the site due to safety concerns, although alternative protest sites have been offered and declined," she said. "Opponents of the current construction plan have failed to get a preliminary injunction to stop the project, but ultimately the project's fate will be decided in court."

Though the most heated arguments have been between construction workers and environmental activists, the anti-bypass demonstrators also include local business owners.

Omaya Sisemore closed the shop she's owned for 19 years for more than three hours to take part in one of the protests at the East Hill Road site. Sisemore, who has lived in Wil-lits for 30 years, said the bypass will kill business in the town.

"I've invested way too much money in my business to see this happen," Sisemore said. "This is not just an environmental issue, it's going to impact the businesses."

Senseman, the original tree-sitter, still has no plans to come down. "I feel like I shouldn't have to be forced down," Senseman said. "We have a right to be here and make sure Caltrans is following the rules."

Staff Writer Melody Karpinski can be reached at 521-5205 or Melody.Karpinski@pressdemocrat.com.

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