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Protester scales machine, slows Willits bypass project

  • William Parrish booking photo.

For the second day in a row, protesters have interfered with work on the Highway 101 bypass project in Willits.

The protests have resulted in numerous arrests and delays, and have cost taxpayers about $1.2 million since April, Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie said.

On Thursday, a local freelance journalist and blogger, Will Parrish, climbed halfway up the 100-foot tower of one of two wick-drain installers, halting the big machine's work for the day, according to protesters and Caltrans officials.

CHP officers attempted to use a lift to remove Parrish, but backed off when they saw that he'd attached himself to the machine using a "sleeping dragon" — a cable protected by a metal pipe, Frisbie said.

"Will is still up there," said Jamie Chevalier, spokeswoman for Redwood Nation Earth First.

On Wednesday, CHP officers arrested five people after protesters blocked the wick-installation machines for several hours. Work on several other areas of the project was not affected, Frisbie said.

"It's slowing it down, but not stopping the work," he said.

There have been about 30 arrests related to the bypass protests since April, protesters said. Protests have cost the state $100,000 for paying workers sidelined by the protests, $160,000 for building a temporary access road to remove tree sitters and about $935,000 for law enforcement to remove tree sitters, Frisbie said.

Most recently, protesters have focused on the drains.

About 55,000 80-foot vertical drains are being installed in an area north of Willits, where seasonal flooding saturates the aptly named Little Lake Valley.

Protesters say the drains could adversely affect streams and fisheries and increase flooding in the area.

Caltrans said the drains, designed to speed earth compaction, will do no environmental harm.

The $210 million, 5.9-mile bypass is being built to skirt the city of Willits, where traffic regularly slows to a crawl as Highway 101 narrows to two lanes through downtown. Proponents say it's necessary to reduce traffic congestion and restore the city's small-town feel.

Opponents say it is an unnecessary, costly and ugly mistake that will harm the environment.

The project's expected completion is fall 2016, Frisbie said. Construction workers are toiling on weekends, with overtime pay, to make up for delays caused by the protests, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.

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