A successful grassroots effort compelled two state agencies to cooperate
FORT ROSS -- The plans were drawn and the permits pulled, the bulldozers were poised and ready, and an access road was already being plowed when the call came in. A judge’s order to halt the work, relayed to the rural coast by fax, forced Caltrans to reluctantly stop their planned reconstruction of two sections of Highway One which had been badly damaged by heavy rains last winter. Five days later, that temporary restraining order proved to be the pivotal moment in a successful grassroots effort to compel two state agencies to cooperate, and in the process, protect the historic beauty of the oldest white settlements in California.
The controversy in this case was unusual: no one disputed the need for the $4.2 million project, nor the plans for re-engineering the threatened sections of the winding two-lane highway that runs along the cliffs high above the Pacific. Virtually everyone in the region, roughly midway between Point Reyes and Mendocino, about 75 miles north of San Francisco, is dependent on the coastal highway for mail, supplies, access to the outer world -- and most important, visitors, as tourism provides the economic lifeblood of the area. No, the dispute all boiled down to a single, simple question: where to put the dirt.
Caltran planned to cover a 2,000 year old Kayasha village site with 35 feet of dirt
estimated by Caltrans, the state road and transportation department, the repair work would generate approximately 130,000 cubic yards of dirt, although further calculations later reduced the figure to 85,000 cubic yards. In the grading permit application presented to Sonoma County officials, that dirt was to be spread over most of a five acre parcel adjacent to the southeastern corner of the Fort Ross Historic Park, a site directly visible from the old fort itself. Although the fill was to be contoured to fill a gully on the site, the mass of new dirt was planned to be 35 feet deep at its thickest.
Alarmed by the mass and scale of the fill being proposed, local environmentalists quickly identified a list of problems with the site, including:
Since that site was one of two that Caltrans had investigated as possible locations for the fill, the loose coalition of local activists pressed for a change in plans to the alternate property, noting that it was actually closer to the largest excavation and would therefore require shorter trips for the 10-yard trucks hauling the dirt. Both sites belong to the same property owner, who had already negotiated an agreement to use the land with the transportation agency.
Koenigshofer sought and received a court injunction halting the road work
however, held firm with their first choice, contending the alternate site was too small to accommodate even the reduced amount of "spoils." Because of the existing buildings and other uses of portions of that 13 acres property, known as the "Ranch House" site, "very few acres will be available to us," said Caltrans deputy director for the district, Diane Steinhauser. The fill would have to be spread about 20 feet deep across the entire area, she added.
Faced with the agency's determination to move forward using the more fragile site, the protesters enlisted the help of local attorney Eric Koenigshofer, a former county supervisor who is currently seeking re-election to that office next year. Koenigshofer sought and received a court injunction halting the road work just as it was beginning on Sept. 21. He also appealed the county's grading permit, which brought the whole controversy before county supervisors the following Tuesday morning, Sept. 26.
At that session, Steinhauser detailed the work to be done, the repair of "two slides and four slip-out areas," which she said, "must go on this week to be completed before the November rains." Failure to meet that deadline could mean that the coastal highway would have to remain closed all winter and might sustain further damage requiring additional, more costly repairs.
That raised the spectre of winterlong use of the detour over Myers Grade, whose residents are not thrilled with the huge increase in traffic now moving across their roads. The detour "is not as winding [as the primary route along the coast highway] but it's steeper" with several 18 percent grades, "which is murder on the trucks," said Caltrans spokesman Colin Jones.
"The goal here is not to stop the project," responded Koenigshofer, but to redirect the placement of the spoils. "The idea that the disposal site is drawn, like a magnet, to the park boundary is a mystery to me." He conceded that the land next to the park "is a tantalizing site from an engineer's point of view," but asked, "Why struggle so with this site when other sites are available that are not so problematic?"
Solution found when state parks offered a compromise
later, that question became academic when Bob Labelle, district superintendent for the state parks department, stepped forward to offer a new compromise. Citing the 'imminent risk" to the lands next to the Fort Ross park, Labelle said he had been authorized to allow Caltrans to use a portion of some 350 acres of pasture land owned by state parks that wraps around much of the alternate disposal site advocated by Koenigshofer and others. "There's nothing there that would be in jeopardy and the access and engineering would be much easier," he noted.
Caltrans had agreed to this new option the previous evening, Labelle said. "Typically we would not allow Caltrans to use state parks lands" for construction-related purposes, he explained. The use of up to 13 acres of the pasture land also means that the filled areas will be only 2-3 feet deep. They will also be recontoured and reseeded, which will partially restore them after years grazing.
Koenigshofer, while pleased with the settlement taking shape, said later that it could have been done much sooner. "The Parks people had been proposing that for weeks," he said. "The only thing that was new was that Caltrans agreed to it."
With a little prodding from the supervisors, the two state agencies stood ready to agree on the third alternative, and the plan moved swiftly forward. Working 12 hour days, six and seven days a week, the project is nearly back on schedule, despite the loss of eight days while the disposal issue was worked out, Caltrans spokesman Jones said this week.
The compromise has been accepted but not embraced by the local environmentalists who fought the first spoils site. "It's the better alternative of the two choices, but it's not perfect," said Darrell Sukovitzen, noting that the new spoils site will still be partially visible from the Highway One viewshed and cannot be completely protected from allowing some erosion into the ocean. Having been involved in other environmental battles with the local Caltrans district, Sukovitzen said this experience only reinforced his negative view of the agency's engineers. "They seem to always go for the easiest, quick way out and constantly circumvent environmental rules," he sighed, noting pervious battles over a new bridge across the Russian River in Guerneville and the campaign to have Highway 116 through western Sonoma County declared a state Scenic Highway. "That's why they're always in court."
The emergency road repair work is being largely financed by a federal FEMA grant, but Jones said any deadlines tied to those funds would not affect the viability of the project. Pointing to the long-delayed repairs on Highway 880 in Oakland, which still has not been rebuilt since the Loma Prieta earthquake, he commented, "Those deadlines are pretty flexible. They just want to see that you're making progress."
The Myers Grade detour, which remains in effect, still allows access to Fort Ross via a secondary road. Fort Ross is the only encampment established on the Pacific Coast by 19th century Russian explorers, who sustained a settlement for several years before abandoning it and returning home. The fort, which is the source of the name of the Russian River, has been rebuilt and is a popular stop for coastal visitors. An annual historic re-enactment is well attended by school field trips and others each spring.
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