City, county plan for tree replacement

If a tree falls in Petaluma, the question isn't whether it will make a sound; it's how much noise will the city's tree advisory committee make on its behalf?

Currently, the committee has its sights set on the Highway 101 widening project, where thousands of trees have been removed to make way for the increase in lanes. Last Monday, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority agreed to invest $5 million into landscaping along Highway 101 over the coming years, work that Caltrans will complete in a series of phases beginning in 2014 or 2015.

Caltrans originally predicted about 700 to 900 trees would need to be removed in order to make room for the addition of highway lanes through the Petaluma area. But to date, Caltrans has cut down more than a thousand trees. It was a figure that worried the city's tree committee, which asked the Petaluma City Council to send a letter in September to the authority, which is overseeing the Highway 101 widening project, asking the local agency to investigate Caltrans' tree cutting and replacement plans related to the widening project. After the state agency said it would not replace the same number of trees it cut down, several county representatives on a committee dedicated to landscaping projects, called the Highway 101 Corridor Tree Committee, finalized a landscaping plan to replace some of the lost trees.

Much to the pleasure of Petaluma's tree committee members, the first phase of landscaping covers three locations, including one site in Petaluma that lost many trees during construction. At the Petaluma Boulevard South interchange specifically, the transportation authority will spend more than $1 million in state funds to replace trees and add additional landscaping features. Though the county's plan does not include planting Redwood trees, Petaluma tree committee members said they didn't care, "So long as landscaping is occurring," said Teresa Barrett, the Petaluma City Council's liaison to the tree committee.

While the first phase of landscaping tickled many of Petaluma's tree advocates, the second phase left some concerned. During this portion of landscaping, the transportation authority plans to evenly divide about $200,000 between four locations along the highway, including the Petaluma Old Redwood Highway interchange. Barrett contended that $50,000 for landscaping at the Old Redwood interchange wouldn't begin to replace the trees Petaluma lost at that site.

"A few years ago the tree committee planted 150 trees in Petaluma that were paid for by a $140,000 grant," said Barrett. "So you can see how $50,000 from the county isn't going to go very far. We've already lost hundreds of trees in Petaluma. We told the SCTA that $50,000 for each of the four sites was too little money and that it might be better to fully landscape one spot with the $200,000. But that didn't go anywhere. What they're doing in the second tier isn't going to make any real difference."

Barrett also pointed out that the third and final phase of the county's landscaping plan, which won't be funded until the highway widening is complete, isn't expected to occur until at least 2018.

"We're talking about Petaluma losing trees at a significant rate, and not seeing those trees come back for four years or more," she said. "We've just lost so much and it's a shame that we won't get much of it back for such along time."

But David Rabbitt, Petaluma's representative on the county board of supervisors and a member of the county tree committee, said he was pleased with the landscaping Petaluma will receive and said that the $50,000 to be spent at Old Redwood wasn't the only money that Petaluma would receive.

"It's money to kick-start the landscaping," Rabbitt said Monday. "It doesn't mean that Old Redwood won't receive more money at a future stage. But the transportation authority has always planned to finish the widening project before it completely finishes landscaping."

Rabbitt also pointed out that the highway widening project is still $209 million short. "Landscaping becomes secondary when you don't have enough money to finish the project you're trying to landscape," he said. "This is an initial step. But we're going to do more to help ameliorate the loss of trees we've had. We just have to be patient."

Petaluma City Couniclmember Mike Harris, who sits on the transportation authority board, said he appreciated that Petaluma was one of the major landscaping sites, even if it wasn't a complete replacement of every tree.

"We bore the brunt of tree loss from the highway widening project," said Harris. "So I'm relieved to see that we're a high priority for the first phase of landscaping. And though the second phase isn't perfect, there will be chances to get more landscaping."

Barrett agreed that keeping Petaluma in the transportation authority's focus could help out in the long run.

"We're happy with the work that's been approved at Petaluma Boulevard South, but we need to keep this at the forefront of the committee," said Barrett. "It's not just a visual thing. Trees are a holistic approach to dealing with many issues like flooding and drought. We want to tell our leaders that this is where the buck stops and to please act."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com.)