Park officials in the dark about clear-cutting
on September 26, 2011
Regional park officials and park users were upset when they unexpectedly found two acres of trees, in piles, on the ground on county land bordering Point Pinole Regional Park on September 14. The county, both park employees and visitors said, had not told them about the project.
As part of a solar panel installation project for the West County Detention Center, about one hundred 85-year-old eucalyptus trees and a dozen oak trees were cut down, said Point Pinole Regional Shoreline Park Supervisor John Hitchen.
Hitchen arrived at the park Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. to find a construction team and equipment already in place, and by Thursday afternoon all the trees were down. Park officials said they were concerned, not only about the landscape of freshly felled trees, but also about the lack of communication with the county.
“It’s odd to have a project of this magnitude that no one knows about,” Hitchen said. “Clearly something is wrong with it.”
The County Board of Supervisors approved the project last September, along with twelve other solar panel installation projects across the region that will provide power to county facilities.
“It’s a good project, but not a blank check to put the solar panels anywhere,” Supervisor John Gioia said after he first saw the clear-cut, more than a week after the construction teams started working.
After learning the details, Gioia said he plans to ask the contractor to halt construction until they have met with park officials, and to find a better place to install the solar panels.
Larry Tong, the interagency planning manager for the East Bay Regional Parks District, said he has requested a copy of the project development plans from the county, primarily to see is if any environmental assessments were performed before the trees were cut down.
The project was exempt from environmental review under California Environmental Quality Act guidelines because West County Detention Center is an existing structure involving no expansion of use. Main Street Power, the Colorado-based company in charge of the construction, had a biologist assess the area within 300 yards of the construction site and found no birds or active bird nests, said County Facilities Maintenance Manager Roland Hindsman.
Although Hitchen and park officials expressed their surprise, the county officials thought they were acting in accordance with the park’s wishes. In an email sent last January, Hitchen, the park supervisor, asked the county for help dealing with fire danger posed by the trees — “to find the resources to actively manage this small but overgrown and potentially fire prone property” – calling them “unkempt” and “overgrown.”
Clearing the trees effectively “killed two birds with one stone,” Hindsman said – allowing the installation of the solar panels and removing the fire danger.
The species or number of trees that were cut has not been formally assessed, but any oak trees found to be felled will be replaced, Hindsman said. He added that since the mature eucalyptus trees are nonnative, they will not be replaced.
Gioia, though, said he plans to meet with park officials to find a plan to replace the eucalyptus trees with native oak trees.
Park officials and regular park visitors were dismayed. The public was not “informed about this heartbreaking destruction of our fragile environment,” said Teri Katz, a regular walker at Point Pinole and tree team chair on the North and East Neighborhood Council.
Hitchen called it an example of the way he said county officials in Martinez aren’t concerned with Richmond. “It seems pretty clear to me,” he said, “that this wouldn’t have happened in Walnut Creek.”
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