Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Several Gasquet residents are questioning whether local government agencies followed the necessary protocol before implementing a project that will remove or top more than 300 trees - many on private property - that are said to be obstructions to the airspace of Ward Field airport.

Frustrated residents brought their complaints to the Del Norte County Planning Commission during a public meeting Wednesday, and some commissioners expressed equal frustration at not being involved in the planning process that they believed should be in their purview.

For next Tuesday's 10 a.m. meeting of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, there is an item on the agenda that would accept the award of a $113,000 grant from the state of California for the Ward Field tree removal project.

During Wednesday's planning commission meeting, Ted Ruggles, a Gasquet resident who has 16 trees that have been marked for topping or removal, complained about the letter sent to residents regarding the project from the Border Coast Regional Airport Authority, which maintains and manages Ward Field through an agreement with the county.

Ruggles chafed at what he consider intimidation in the letter, which included a section from the county airport zoning ordinance that says the district attorney "shall" prosecute to enjoin any person from allowing structures, including trees, to grow into the airspace.

Ruggles was upset that the letter did not include the part of the ordinance that states: "Regulations Not Retroactive. The regulations prescribed in this chapter shall not be construed to require the removal, lowering, or other change or alteration of any structure or tree not conforming to the regulations as of the effective date of this chapter."

Since the chapter is dated 1980, Ruggles said, "basically what that means is that any tree that was in the airspace before 1980 is effectively not subject to removal."

Ruggles' wife, Donna Ruggles, questioned why the county Planning Department ruled that the project was exempt from review through the California Environmental Quality Act.

The Planning Department issued a categorical exemption to CEQA based on the clause that "maintenance of existing landscaping" is an accepted exemption.

"I would say that the topping or removal of 338 trees is more like a logging project, not like mowing the grass," Donna Ruggles said.

Heidi Kunstal, deputy director of the Planning Department, said that the project that she deemed exempt from CEQA is different than the project now being proposed by the airport authority.

Gasquet residents have said that the CEQA exemption prevented the necessary review of potential impacts to property values, compliance with the Wild and Scenic River corridor, and compliance with Endangered Species Act on a state and federal level since bald eagles are said to have been frequently seen in trees scheduled for removal.

The report from the airport authority says that if the county chooses to not authorize and accept the grant, "The obligation to remove the trees for safety compliance will remain and financial responsibility for compliance will fully rest with the County."

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