Bolinas homeowner decries planning, felled trees

10/06/2011

Twenty-five years ago Serena Castaldi watched as her small home on the Little Mesa, in Bolinas, slowly fell victim to cliff erosion. She was forced to abandon the property but soon rebounded, purchasing another lot not far from the first and erecting a modest one-story that overlooked a lush, sloping grove of eucalyptus.

Now, the 67-year-old says she has fallen victim once more as the eucalyptus are methodically mowed down to make way for a park. “I lost the ocean. Now I will loose the trees,” she said, gazing out from her large, expansive living room window.
Castaldi’s plea is not new. For the past four years she has been a vocal dissident to what she describes as a bloated and shady park planning process.

The land in question, dubbed “Burnt Park” after an infamous 1974 fire, was nothing more than a charred, vacant lot next to the Bolinas Market until a local benefactor donated it to the community for development as a downtown park. A nonprofit headed by the utility district formed a design committee and hired a consulting firm, Peacock Designs, to start drawing up plans.

But there was a problem: the long swath of 100-foot eucalyptus trees that crowded the back of the property was a noticeable safety and fire hazard. Planners knew it, county staff knew it, and a 2007 arborist report confirmed it.

“If you think about a 100-foot tree with roots that only go down three to five feet, it’s like having a giant lever that only needs a little bit of wind to come toppling down,” said Bolinas-based arborist Chuck Oakander.

Oakander did not conduct the 2007 report but he has been hired by park planners to trim the eucalyptus down to about 20 feet. “The idea is to cut them as low as possible so that the root systems remain intact to stabilize the hillside until native trees are planted and begin to take root,” he said.

But Castaldi contended the trees have become a signature of the hillside. “These trees are what makes the Little Mesa what it is,” she wrote in a recent letter. “They are our wind breakers and they provide privacy from view and sounds from downtown.”

She also took issue with the 2007 report, which predicted a neglible increase in sound from downtown activities reaching homes such as hers once the trees were cut. “My response is, ‘Bullshit,’” she said. “It doesn’t take a physicist to know that when a sound wave travels and there is stuff in between like trees and leaves the sound gets broken up.”

Roger Peacock, of Peacock Designs, said those concerns are moot because new native trees are going to be planted in place of the eucalyptus as soon as the latter are trimmed.

“The slope is not being denuded. The whole hillside is going to be replanted,” he said. “To be honest it’s a little frustrating because we’ve been trying to do this [tree trimming] before the winter rains hit, but people, particularly Serena, have been holding the whole process up.”

Castaldi shared the frustration, but for a different reason. “They tell me the new trees will grow in ten years,” she said. “I say, “Hello? Thank you, but I’m not in my 20s anymore.”

She added that the handling of the tree removal was not adequately publicized, and that it was but one example of a broader, closed-door park planning process. Jack Siedman, a member of the public utility board, vehemently disagreed.

“This idea that it has not been transparent is a complete fabrication,” Siedman said. “We had two community-wide meetings—one about two and half years ago and the other about a year and a half ago—in which we talked about the need to deal with the trees. There was a survey distributed to residents to see what they wanted in the park; a group of teenagers submitted their desires for the lot; a slide presentation was given; there was a county hearing; and there is a public board on the lot itself that details the park plans.”

He added, “When the people on Little Mesa expressed concern about the trees, we met with them and had a discussion on it. Then they said to come up and look at the trees from their perspective, so we did. They were assured that the trees would be replanted. There has been a lot of community input throughout this entire process.”

In its staff evaluation of the project, the county supported Siedman’s stance: “The project exemplifies community-based planning and public participation in development decisions.”

Peacock noted that, despite Castaldi’s concerns otherwise, the funds for replanting have all been raised, and that any unforeseen financial setbacks would not impact that part of the park’s development plan. “We may have to pull back on some bells and whistles, but definitely not on that,” he said, adding that replanting would begin as soon as trimming concludes—expected in the next couple of weeks.

“There is a certain group of people that oppose all tree-cutting in Bolinas,” Oakander said. “And I can appreciate that argument. But I also think there are a whole lot of things to consider. Doing nothing is a choice, but there can be consequences to that. We’ve seen that in the [Mount Vision Fire] and also in the blaze that hit the Oakland Hills years ago.”

In the past, Castaldi has not been opposed to all cutting. Oakander and Peacock both said she hired an arborist some years ago to cut eucalyptus trees on the slope near her house. Castaldi confirmed that she had paid for the cuttings, but only because the trees had grown too close. “They were on the left side of my lot… so they did not serve to protect me from the view and sounds of the town,” she wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, development of the park—which will include a children’s play area, small amphitheater, picnic table and public restroom—continues with a notable level of community support. “Most of the comments we’ve received from residents are ‘Get started,’” Siedman said.