Were local wetlands damaged during Highway 101 widening?

After months of staging construction equipment on a piece of land just south of Petaluma for the Highway 101 widening project, San Rafael contractor Ghilotti Brothers, Inc. has found itself in hot water with the County of Sonoma for the possible destruction of wetlands.

"Based on a county permit department review, we've found that it's highly probable that wetlands have been filled in," said Sonoma County Planner Misti Harris. "We looked at aerial shots of the property, checked the soil and visited the site. We found clear signs of wetlands, but we don't have an estimate on how much has been destroyed. That's what we need to figure out before we can approve the project and require mitigations."

The 5-acre construction site in question is located at the southeast tip of a 277-acre plot of land owned by the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians. According to the county, the undeveloped site has been home to large Ghilotti Brothers trucks and equipment since November 2012 — despite the fact that the construction company didn't apply for construction permits until April 2013. Without explaining why they didn't pull permits, Ghilotti cited an environmental study that found the site contained no wetlands, but the county disagreed.

Caltrans regularly contracts with firms like Ghilotti Brothers, to manage local infrastructure project sites, like the one south of town for the Highway 101 widening. Jeremy Schofield, Ghilotti Brothers' spokesman, said that the company hired Sacramento-based environmental firm Environmental Services Associates (ESA) to conduct a wetlands study, which concluded there were none located on the site. After studying the land, ESA concluded that although the land supported some wetland vegetation, it was not a wetland site.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wetlands — which include swamps, marshes and bogs — vary widely because of differences in soils, topography, climate, vegetation and other environmental factors. Wetlands feed downstream waters, trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, remove pollution and provide fish and wildlife habitat. They are often found along waterways and in floodplains.

"We're stuck between two different entities: the county and ESA," said Schofield. "The county says one thing, ESA says another. And all the ESA documentation we've seen suggests it's not a wetlands."

But Harris said that the county has seen clear wetland indicators for quite some time at this particular site, and originally asked the tribe to submit a wetlands study prior to any work being done on the land. Compounding the problem, Harris said, is that Ghilotti Brothers didn't go through the proper permitting process before filling in portions of the land.

"We're playing catch-up here," said Harris. "It's a challenge to do this when work has already started. We're trying to figure out what the original project was, how long it's going to take and what sort of environmental mitigations it would require. Normally, we figure out all that before a project has begun, so that we can ask for things like wetlands protections. Ultimately, if wetlands are found on the land, we won't even know how much they filled in and how much they should mitigate. It's tough."

Allyn Amsk, public information officer for Caltrans, said that while the state transportation entity allows contractors to use private properties for construction projects, it had no idea that Ghilotti Brothers was planning to use this particular site for a Highway 101 project staging area until February 2013 — three months after the site opened.

"When it came to the department's attention that Ghilotti Brothers, Inc. was utilizing the private property on Redwood Highway, (we) told the contractor that this property lies outside of the construction project limits, was not covered under the project's environmental study and that all necessary permits, licenses, agreements and certifications would need to be issued before the property could be used."

Amsk said Caltrans told Ghilotti Brothers to suspend all operations related to Caltrans construction on the site and submit copies of required permits for review on Feb. 25, 2013. The three entities have engaged in an ongoing back-and-forth debate over the status of the project ever since.

Amsk added that Caltrans does not plan to verify the county's wetlands report: "Any issues identified are the responsibility of (Ghilotti Brothers) and the county to resolve," he said.

If the project receives county approval, Highway 101 construction staging could resume on the property. Until then, the county has told Ghilotti Brothers to submit a formal wetlands delineation study on the property. Schofield said the company will instead locate proof from ESA that wetlands are not on the site. "The site is a good thing," said Schofield. "It's supporting nearby construction projects and that's the ultimate goal. We're waiting for ESA to provide us the needed documents on their background report and we'll go from there. Until then, there's not a lot of activity going on there."

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