Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Stymied project in Humboldt County has no bearing on 197/199 improvements, Caltrans says

Last week, the California Court of Appeals ruled that Caltrans must go back to the drawing board to reassess the potential impacts to old-growth redwood roots for the Highway 101 straightening/widening project through Richardson Grove State Park in southern Humboldt County.

The court's ruling raises questions about how it will affect Caltrans projects planned for Del Norte County that also run through old-growth redwood stands, such as improvements to U.S. Highway 197, a project that is poised to break ground by summer and will include roadway with old-growth redwoods in Ruby Van Deventer Park.

Caltrans officials contend they have sufficiently evaluated impacts to redwood trees and roots for the 197/199 Safe STAA Access Project and there will be no affect from the ruling.

The project would straighten and widen seven tight spots (including replacing a narrow bridge with an awkward approach) on U.S. highways 199 and 197, ultimately opening the route up to industry-standard commercial shipping trucks with no overall length limit.

"We stand by our analysis for this vital project," said Caltrans project manager Kevin Church.

Not so fast, said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), one of the three environmental groups that has sued Caltrans in state and federal court over the 197/199 project.

"(Caltrans') analysis about potential impacts to ancient redwoods on highways 199 and 197 is not much more in-depth than what they they've done on Richardson Grove," Hughes said. "We certainly hope that Caltrans is taking (the Richardson ruling) very seriously."

Highway lawsuits

Environmental groups have been tying up the Richardson Grove and Highway 199/197 projects in court almost since the their inception.

After EPIC and other environmental groups won a favorable ruling for the Richardson Grove project in April 2012 that ordered Caltrans to reassess potential harm to old-growth redwoods, EPIC sent a letter to the transportation agency advising that the ruling applied to the highway 199/197 project as well.

"This new information about Caltrans' deficient analysis of the STAA project through Richardson Grove State Park is directly applicable to the Highway 197/199 project because old-growth redwood trees will be impacted," the letter states.

EPIC believes that the 2012 Richardson ruling and their letter was part of the motivation for Caltrans to recirculate environmental analysis documents for 199/197 in Oct. 2012.

But unlike Richardson Grove, where environmental groups won an injunction halting the project, the 199/197 project is marching forward - some vegetation removal has already happened on 199.

'Treat the people fair'

Minus an injunction from environmental groups, the only other factor that has potential to delay the 199/197 project was negotiations for right of way with property owners on Highway 197, including a quarter acre of land owned by Del Norte County Planning Commissioner Johnny Jacobs. Negotiations with Jacobs could have pushed the start date to 2015, Church said; however, Jacobs said the issue is now largely resolved.

"If you had a piece of ground with enough square footage to build a house on it, would you sell it for $3,000?" Jacobs said.  He had been asking Caltrans for enough money to construct a sound wall to replace the trees that currently protect neighbors from the loud noises of Jacobs' rock quarry. "I believe if it's a project that benefits the public you shouldn't stop it, but treat the people fair."

Caltrans had filed for eminent domain of the quarter-acre strip, Jacobs said.

Since then the two parties have come to an agreement for the right of way, although Jacobs remains cautious until he receives the check:

"You know the old saying: it's not over until the fat lady sings."

'Significant setback'

Since the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission has completed all it can do to make the 199/197 project happen, the agency has switched its focus to the landslide-prone section of Highway 101 known as Last Chance Grade, 12 miles south of Crescent City.

There has been a strong local push recently to bypass the landslides of Last Chance, but any bypass is likely to require the removal of dozens if not hundreds of old growth redwood trees.

After last week's Richardson Grove ruling was released, Tamera Leighton, the executive director of the Del Norte transportation commission, sent an ominous email to supporters of a Last Chance bypass:

"This is a significant setback," Leighton's email said. "All rulings on Richardson Grove are likely to impact any project with potential tree impacts."

When asked to explain the reasoning behind her foreboding, Leighton said that compared to the redwood impacts predicted for a Last Chance bypass, Richardson Grove is chump change, "a very small project with very few environmental impacts," she said in an email to the Triplicate. She added:

"When I look at everything happening in the environmental law arena today, I don't yet understand how we will complete the environmental process for a bypass with 'only' 50 old growth tree impacts (Leighton's very conservative estimate) and especially in light of the challenges with Richardson Grove, which is a comparatively minor project."

Reach Adam Spencer