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Developer hit with penalty for cutting Petaluma oak trees

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City officials recently doled out their punishment for the developer and general contractor that cut down protected oak trees on the Altura Apartments project site on April 10, violating the terms of its approval.

Residents affected by the loss of trees aren’t happy with how the punitive process played out, though, and are upset that they were left out of the discussion on how to adequately mitigate such a dramatic change to their properties.

Earlier this year, construction workers employed by The Reliant Group of San Francisco cut 12 native trees and numerous overhanging branches along the western edge of the project site, located at the northwest corner of Baywood Drive and Perry Lane in southeast Petaluma.

By doing so, they removed nearly all of the tree cover that protected the homes on nearby Ponderosa Drive, and opened up several backyards to the entire façade of two apartment buildings and the future pool area. The residents also lost their natural sound barrier, and have been exposed to noise pollution from construction that often spills into nights and weekends.

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

The Reliant Group did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Roger Nelson, president of the general contractor for the project, Midstate Construction, denied any involvement with the violation.

“The workers were not hired by us or directed by us,” he said in an email. Nelson did not respond to a follow-up question seeking clarification on how a separate group of workers could have gained access to the site.

The city’s enforcement action is a multi-faceted penalty, requiring planting of replacement trees, construction of an eight-foot fence, and payment of a $46,600 fine by Aug. 26 – prior to issuing the first certificate of occupancy. If the developer and contractor don’t complete everything by the 60-day deadline, Petaluma’s code enforcement division could obtain an administrative order and impose penalties up to $1,000 per day, per violation.

In an email Tuesday, planning manager Heather Hines said the incident “broke trust, caused irreparable impacts, and has been an expensive and time consuming detour in the completion of a much-needed housing project in Petaluma.”

David Lindecke, one of the residents affected by the unauthorized removal, said the city’s communication with the Ponderosa neighbors started decaying once deputy planning manager Kevin Colin ended his tenure in Petaluma last month. Colin had been facilitating the channel between the residents and the city, and Lindecke said his departure left them feeling “disappointed” once the violation notice was finalized.

“He took our feedback and was going to follow-up with us before submitting the notice of violation,” he said. “What actually happened was he left, and shortly after he left the notice of violation came out and there was no consultation with the neighbors.”

Hines disputed Lindecke’s claim.

“City staff has continued to communicate with the Ponderosa neighbors to solicit input and keep them updated on the enforcement action, answer questions, and respond to onsite concerns in a timely manner and as they occur,” she said.

Aside from the alleged drop-off in communication, the Ponderosa neighbors are most upset about the replanting on the side of the creek closest to Ponderosa Drive, which is owned by the Sonoma County Water Agency.

All of the new vegetation will be installed inside the complex, which could result in a noticeable void in tree cover closest to their homes, the neighbors said.

That’s forcing Lindecke to consider installing a privacy fence of his own now – something he never thought he’d have to do because of the immense foliage that once surrounded his backyard.

The imposed mitigation plan requires planting of nine live oak trees, five fruit trees and 19 evergreen shrubs. The trees must be 12 to 14 feet at installation, and could reach a mature height of 70 feet decades down the road.

In optimal conditions, live oaks can grow up to 24 inches in a single growing season, but considering the size of the trees at installation, the maturation process will be much slower. Eight of the trees cut in April were 20 feet or higher.

“We’re in peak heat,” Lindecke said. “It’d be nice to have something to block the view but unless you’re going to have somebody caring for that … ideally we’d be doing this in spring or fall.”

To make sure all the mitigation directives are followed, the city will be doing inspections, and the planning division will determine compliance once everything has been completed.

The city also issued a red tag, or a stop work order, on April 24, requiring construction ceased on the pool area adjacent to where the trees were cut. According to the violation notice, that will remain in place until all of the enforcement actions have been satisfied.

A security deposit will be held for five years to ensure the health and survival of the replacement vegetation, but Hines said the city hadn’t come up with a “firm amount yet.”

Reliant and Midstate were given an opportunity to appeal the violation notice within 15 days of receiving it, but there hasn’t been any communication with the applicant that an appeal is coming, Hines said.

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