The Del Norte County Board of Supervisors awarded a contract Tuesday to remove trees that pose a safety hazard to Ward Field Airport in Gasquet, a project that has been requested by Caltrans Division of Aeronautics, the permitting agency for the small airfield.
Actually carrying out the contract may prove more difficult since 56 of the 92 trees identified for topping or removal sit on properties owned by citizens who have recently rescinded the county's right-of-entry onto their private property.
Susan Daugherty, airport program manager for the Border Coast Regional Airport Authority, which manages Ward Field, told the Board of Supervisors that the authority will be contacting those homeowners who have recently rescinded rights-of-entry to see if they can get them back on board for tree removal of all or at least a portion of the trees identified.
The airport authority forwarded the recently rescinded rights-of-entry to Phillip Miller, the aviation safety officer for Caltrans Division of Aeronautics who evaluated the Ward Field project. Miller replied that the project keeps getting smaller and smaller and that he thinks "Weall need to rethink the future of Ward (Field) and where we go next," Miller's email to the authority said.
Ward Field is vital for emergency scenarios because of Gasquet being cut off from the rest of the county by land transportation as well as wildland fire fighting. Gasquet lies entirely within Six Rivers National Forest.
During Tuesday's meeting, county Supervisor Mike Sullivan hinted at legal ramifications that could come down on Gasquet homeowners who do not cooperate with the tree removal project.
"There is obviously some liability if a plane crashes into a tree, but otherwise this is an opportunity for those landowners to have it done at the county's cost," Sullivan said.
$113,000 of the $125,000 available for the project is coming from Caltrans aviation funds while the county's $12,000 match is coming from Title III Secure Rural Schools funds, federal funds distributed through the U.S. Forest Service to mitigate lost timber revenue on public lands.
Tom Stewart, a Gasquet resident who has previously spoken out against the project, told the Board that he would try to relate to his Gasquet neighbors "not to stand in the way. andhellip; I don't think the Gasquet community is prepared or wants to continue to be some kind of an obstructive entity with this project," Stewart said.
Expressing a contrary view, another Gasquet resident, Wendy Bertrand, asked the Board not to award the contract for tree removal, saying there are lots of people in Gasquet who want more time spent on determining which trees need to be removed and how they will be cut and getting the community's input as part of that process.
"You have many opinions out of Gasquet, but I know many of my colleagues and friends are very worried about the confusion and how the contract is being managed and how the money is being spent," Bertrand said.
One of the main sources of confusion regarding the Ward Field project stems from the fact that the project originally submitted to the Community Development Department for environmental review was not the same project that went out for bidding earlier this year.
The project that underwent county environmental review in 2012 was an estimate based on a smaller survey of only properties directly adjacent to Ward Field, while the project that went to bid earlier this year was based on a larger survey that identified more than 300 trees for topping and removal, with some on properties not even adjacent to Ward Field.
The larger project frightened many Gasquet homeowners, prompting some to call for a more extensive review under the California Environmental Quality Act. The county community development department determined that the smaller project reviewed in 2012 was exempt from review under CEQA.
"Anything beyond the scope of what we field-reviewed would need to be a separate review," said Heidi Kunstal of the county's community development department during Tuesday's meeting.
Daugherty said that the larger survey that identified more than 300 trees was pursued and included in the contract bid package in order to give the authority a clear understanding of the full cost of the obstruction removal being requested by Caltrans.
The low bid on the larger project was $476,789, but the airport authority never intended to do work outside the scope of the county's environmental review, Daugherty said.
"We told (interested contractors) during the bidders' meeting that we would not be doing the full project and that we would break it down into sections," Daugherty told the Triplicate on Wednesday.
Determining the cost of the full obstruction removal was important since the airport authority can only apply for Caltrans funding every two years for projects five years out, Daugherty said.
The contract the Board awarded Tuesday is scaled back to "the available fund amount and the area covered by the environmental document," Daugherty's report to the Board states. The project will only affect properties directly adjacent to the airport, Daugherty said.
Supervisor Sullivan said at the meeting that Tuesday's Triplicate article "muddied the water" regarding the scope of the project by incorrectly reporting the number of trees identified for removal when the project went out for bidding earlier this year.
Daugherty confirmed that the contract that went to bid included more than 300 trees for topping or removal, again citing accurate project estimates as the reason.
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