Ruling blocks Caltrans from altering Richardson Grove with Highway 101 plan

Judge: State agency worked 'to deprive the public' of opportunity to comment on project

Ruling blocks Caltrans from altering Richardson Grove with Highway 101 plan
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Another judge weighed in last week on Caltrans’ plan to reshape the portion of U.S. Highway 101 that extends through Richardson Grove State Park, a ruling environmental agencies are hailing as a victory for the ancient old-growth redwoods surrounding the narrow highway passage.

Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Kelly Neel blocked Caltrans from “any and all” activities that could “physically alter” the Richardson Grove area, finding the state agency’s decisions prevented the public from providing input on the project’s impacts.

“The public must have a say,” Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Kelly Neel wrote in her decision. “Here, the state proceeded in such a way as to deprive the public and other agencies of the opportunity to provide comment on the impacts analysis … (the Court does not believe this was done in bad faith).”

Neel found that when Caltrans added an arborist’s assessment of the project to its draft environmental impact report, it did so in a way that didn’t allow the public or other agencies to critique the merits of the arborist’s rating system.

She writes the agency didn’t formally adhere to the California Environmental Quality Act, allowing the project to “evade judicial review” of any legal concerns that may arise from the plan.

“Moreover, the rating system devised by the arborist may or may not rest on sound scientific footing,” Neel writes. “Without review and critique by others with expertise in the relevant fields, this footing remains untested. Peer review is essential to sound science.”

This latest ruling marks the fourth time that a judge has taken some kind of action on the project since its inception. In early May, a federal judge ruled against the plan, saying it relied on a “flawed” analysis of truck impacts on the ancient redwoods.

Caltrans’ plan is to widen a section of the highway so that “extra long” trucks could pass through Highway 101. Heavy trucks — even longer than 18-wheelers — are currently prohibited from passing through the narrow, winding portion of the highway, found near the southern tip of Humboldt County.

The overall goal is to boost economic development in the North Coast, since heavier trucks would allow for greater transport of goods to and from the county.

But environmental groups, such as the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center, argue the plan would jeopardize the roots of the grove’s old-growth trees, some of which are thousands of years old.

“We’ve won four times now in court,” said Tom Wheeler, EPIC’s executive director. “Caltrans has an opportunity to go back and cure their mistakes… they’ve continued to do a poor job following the law.”

Wheeler added Caltrans’ original intent has been made obsolete by state Route 299, which provides an alternate pathway between the East Bay Area and Humboldt County.

In an emailed statement, Matt Brady, a Caltrans district director, said:

“Caltrans remains committed to serving the public with a safe and sustainable state highway system that supports the local economy and jobs while preserving the natural beauty of the North Coast.”

Brady emphasized the agency doesn’t plan to make major changes to Highway 101.

“Some important facts: This project plans to make minor adjustments to a few curves,” Brady said in the statement. “A third-party certified arborist found project activities will not substantially affect the continued vigorous health of old-growth redwood trees.”

“But going above and beyond,” Brady continued, “Caltrans plans to take extra measures to protect old-growth redwoods trees and their roots. No bulldozers will be used in the structural root zone of old growth trees. Work in the structural root zone of old growth trees will be done by hand and with an air spade.”

While past judges have described the project as one that would “widen” the highway, Brady said that framing the project as a “highway-widening” effort is a bad-faith characterization.

“Typically curves extended on one side (of the highway) would be brought in on the other,” he said. “More than 99 percent of the state park is planned to remain untouched and no old-growth trees will be removed.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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