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When asked if the deal could be complicated by the fact that many of the trees are on public state land and being sold—by a private company—to a public county agency, Howze responded that though unusual, "there's nothing inherently wrong with it."
"It was explained to me that Ghilotti is contracted with Caltrans to clear the site," Sherwood says, adding that he, too, asked how the trees became the contractor's property when he heard about the deal, and that county contractors and legal counsel were contacted to ensure this was standard practice. "As part of that responsibility," he says, "they essentially own whatever's on the site."
Ghilotti did not return a call seeking comment.
As redwoods from the state right-of-way are being sold to the SCWA, a plot of land between the two onramps that was designated as county open space is also going away to Caltrans for construction. A document from the Transportation and Public Works board meeting dated March 20, 2012, details the transfer, which includes two parcels of land in a 610-foot strip near Mark West Creek.
"The Specific Plan for the Sonoma County Airport Industrial Area, dated July 13, 1987, designates a portion of the subject property as a riparian conservation and enhancement corridor," the document reads. "The State's proposed use of the subject property as a freeway project is clearly incompatible with the Specific Plan designation."
However, the document concludes, Caltrans would likely seize the property via eminent domain for the freeway widening project if the county agency attempted to hold on to it. The open space land was ultimately offered to the state via a possession and use agreement, which stipulates that Caltrans "make its best efforts to convey easements to the County over the subject property and other adjoining land in the vicinity for future public access purposes."
One of these uses will ideally be a pathway near the creek that runs under the freeway. In the county's 2010 general plan, a multi-use pathway is called for the site, running between Old Redwood Highway and the SMART railroad tracks, similar to the Prince Memorial Greenway along Santa Rosa Creek. As it stands now, the county will have to hope Caltrans operates in good faith to allow the county usage of the former open space land.
"If we went to court, we would just get money, so hopefully we'll still have something we can negotiate with," says Eric Nelson, an agent with the Transportation and Public Works Department. He points out that this piece of land isn't unique; it's one of many being used by Caltrans for the widening project, part of the Highway 101 congestion relief program begun in 2004 (or, as local bumper stickers once famously declared, "Three Lanes All the Way").
Though concern has arisen over the highly visible redwood removal along the freeway in Petaluma, Nelson says he hasn't heard any protest about the Airport- and Fulton-area trees from local conservation groups.
"As to the ugliness of taking down the redwoods, we haven't really had an oar in that water," says Steve Birdlebough, chair of the local Sierra Club chapter. "Maybe we should have. That's when the chickens come home to roost for a lot of folks. It's the final realization of 'Oh dear me, what have we done?'"
Most of the Sierra Club's efforts were in the EIR stage of the 101 expansion, Birdlebough says, ensuring that HOV lanes to encourage carpooling were part of the mix.
"In the '70s and '80s, the Sierra Club's concern was much about visual scenery," he says. "In the '90s and '00s, our concern has turned toward the question of climate disruption and use of fossil fuels, of changes so serious we humans may not be able to adapt fast enough."
Perhaps not. But in the meantime, freeways expand, trees turn a nice profit, and the "Redwood Highway" is becoming ever more a misnomer.