- Rachel Dovey
- THE CHOSEN SPOT? Redwood trees, which once defined Sonoma County as the Redwood Empire, are now defined as 'debris.'
In a profitable twist of fate, a private construction company is selling $98,000 worth of redwood trees to a public agency, largely from public land.
Last December, Ghilotti Construction was awarded a $30.5 million contract to replace the Airport Boulevard overpass along Highway 101, according to Caltrans' website. The overpass will include new, longer on- and offramps, one of which will extend over Mark West Creek, and will result in the permanent closure of ramps just south at Fulton Road.
The project requires the removal of roughly 600 trees, underway now. With Ghilotti subcontractor Atlas Tree Service on site, stumps and bare logs now take the place of the redwoods, visible to motorists on the road.
Like so many of the redwoods along the northern corridor, these were non-native trees planted for aesthetic reasons decades ago in the early stages of the freeway's construction. According to the project's EIR, the redwoods "reinforce motorists' perception of the regional landscape character and Highway 101 as the 'Redwood Highway.'"
Many of the trees towered on land in Caltrans' existing right-of-way, according to documents on Sonoma County Transportation Authority's website. Highly detailed maps from a 2001 project study report show state right-of-way as a dotted line extending several feet beyond Highway 101's border on either side, and stretching around the circular on- and offramps of both the Fulton and Airport overpasses. The majority of redwoods being felled are in grassy islands inside these snaking ramps.
Strangely, Ghilotti assumes possession of the valuable trees once cut down. In fact, the Sonoma County Water Agency is buying 200 logs from Ghilotti at the aforementioned cost of $98,000, according to SCWA spokesperson Brad Sherwood. The logs will provide structural enhancements along Dry Creek, which will be widened and shaped to benefit endangered coho and steelhead as part of ongoing improvements.
That's a selling price of $490 a log—a cost that Sherwood says is fair value lumber price.
"Thirty-foot logs go for anywhere from $400 to $500," he says. "The logs we're purchasing are anywhere from 20 to 30 feet."
Still, how can the property of a public entity be ceded to a private corporation and then sold to another public agency for a profit, with taxpayer money on both ends?
Kevin Howze, an engineer with the county's department of planning and public works, has worked alongside staff from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and Caltrans on the Airport Boulevard project. He says he isn't aware of the details of this particular lumber transfer, but adds that it isn't unprecedented.
"It's not uncommon that debris can be the contractor's responsibility," he says. "Sometimes it has value; other times it's nothing more than a nuisance."