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Petaluma residents upset after developer cuts down oak trees

David Lindecke had made peace with the new housing project being built behind his backyard.

In fact, most of the Ponderosa Drive residents had, noting that the Altura Apartments in southeast Petaluma would help alleviate the housing shortage, exacerbated by last fall’s destructive wildfires.

The main concern for the residents, though, was their privacy, but they had a creek and plenty of tree cover to shield them from the construction and any wandering eyes when Altura’s 150 apartments, located on the northwest corner of Baywood Drive and Perry Lane, were built and occupied.

On April 10, all of that changed.

The developer, The Reliant Group of San Francisco, removed 12 native oak trees and numerous overhanging branches along the western edge of the project site, exposing seven backyards on Ponderosa Drive to the entire façade of two apartment buildings and the complex’s future pool area.

The city’s deputy planning manager, Kevin Colin, said it was a “clear violation of the terms of their permit,” and there will be a penalty and corrective action plan to extend the height of the boundary wall beyond the city’s six-foot standard, in addition to replanting trees.

The city also placed a red tag on the pool area, forcing remediation before construction can continue. If the developer doesn’t comply, Colin said “there are other remedies the city can seek,” alluding to the potential for litigation.

“We have legal authority to carry out our enforcement action and compel (the developer) to pay some form of money for the violation that occurred, and do (more) planting to obscure the views,” he said.

Lindecke admitted he’s pessimistic about how the resolution process will play out, though. He and his neighbors feel betrayed by a move that seemed “intentional and malicious,” and made the 195 feet between the nearest building and the closest home feel noticeably shorter.

“What you’ve got here is a developer that basically thinks, ‘Meh, I can do whatever I want,’” he said.

Next door to Lindecke is Nathan Kelly, a Petaluma native raising daughters in a home he likened to “an oasis.” His fenced-in backyard features a pool with a slide, a custom shed, and a canopy designed for long afternoons outside.

For years he was accustomed to the dense tree cover and open field on the opposite side of the creek. When word came that apartments were being built, Kelly said he considered moving but his wife implored them to stay since the city made the privacy of the residents and protecting the trees a top priority.

“It was beautiful,” Kelly said, dejectedly looking out onto his backyard. “We would have been naive to think that they weren’t going to (ever) build something there, but the way that we were deceived, it was really bad.”

The Reliant Group did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment. Colin said he hadn’t received an explanation from the developer, either.

The general contractor, Midstate Construction, also did not return calls for comment.

Colin shared an email from Reliant project manager Alberto Lucio with residents at a meeting in City Hall last week. In it, Lucio provided a proposal from the landscape architect to plant 39 Dodonaea shrubs to help screen the views.

Lindecke said that response was “laughable” since the evergreen shrubs would be four to five feet high at installation and require upwards of a year to reach a mature height of 12 feet. The shrubs would be significantly smaller than the oaks, since eight of the 12 trees were 20 feet or taller.

HELIX Environmental Planning conducted an inventory of the trees near the project site in October 2016. Petaluma Municipal Code Chapter 17 requires an arborist report and/or tree protection plan to accompany any development applications that might affect protected trees.

The report determined 24 total trees met the city’s municipal code for protection, located either in or hanging over the project site. However, it warned the western edge of the project site might encroach into the dripline of six specific trees. Even though the arborist provided recommended avoidance measures to protect them, they were still cut.

The city’s municipal code states a tree removal permit must be issued to cut down protected trees but none was provided.

On top of the increased sightlines onto Ponderosa Drive homes, Kelly said residents are now exposed to the noise of the site where construction often continues on nights and weekends.

“The hard thing is with the acoustics,” he said. “There’s no more sound barrier with all the eco that was there before and all the foliage. The hardest thing I think that we have is we’re looking at the structure now, but we also know that headlights moving in and everything moving forward is going to affect us.”

Lindecke said he’s been “pleasantly surprised” by the response of the city and its efforts to remedy the situation on their behalf. In last week’s sit down, Colin told them Petaluma has some 2,000 housing units “in the pipeline” over the next three to four years, and this incident should serve as a warning for developers and contractors.

“The lesson I think for the Altura situation would not be for the (city) staff,” Colin said. “It’d be for the builders in the future to send a message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.”

Of course, for the residents on Ponderosa Drive, it’s hard to find a takeway in all this. And with each day that passes, Lindecke becomes a little bit more discouraged that they’ll ever get their privacy back.

“That’s my biggest fear,” he said, “that (The Reliant Group will) just throw money at this and we’re going to be stuck with this.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)