A rare chimeric coast redwood in Cotati will be spared the ax, at least for now, after Sonoma-Marin rail officials bowed to public opposition Thursday and suspended the planned removal of the tree to make way for train tracks.
Tom Stapleton, a former Sonoma County arborist who now works in Amador County, raised concerns about the loss of the unusual tree — which could be one of only a handful of coast redwoods known to be in existence that exhibit both albino and normal foliage on the same branches.
SMART had scheduled the tree for removal, possibly within the month, saying its location violates Federal Railroad Administration regulations governing the safe operation of its planned commuter train.
Stapleton's concerns, outlined Wednesday in a Press Democrat story, went national — drawing calls from news media across the country, along with offers to help from other arborists and ordinary tree lovers.
Supporters of the effort also started a Cotati Redwood Facebook page.
On Thursday afternoon, Farhad Mansourian, SMART's general manager, said he had suspended the removal plans.
"I wanted to pause and make sure we do the right thing for the community and the environment," Mansourian said. "We are a big part of the community and we have extreme care with our environment, and we want to make sure we do the right thing.
"Everything comes to a halt with this tree removal until we bring in additional experts."
People behind the effort to save the tree welcomed the move.
"Hurray! That's the first step. That's fantastic," said Cotati historian Prue Draper. She and others recently raised the alarm that SMART's initial decision two years ago to leave the tree had changed with the addition of a second, side track at the Cotati station.
"This is wonderful," Stapleton said. "I can sleep at night."
Stapleton researches rare coast redwoods, including the true albino or "ghost redwoods" and other chlorophyll-deficient anomalies. He said his research indicates there are fewer than 10 known coast redwood "chimeras," which have both normal and albino characteristics on the same limb.
SMART provided an arborist's report Thursday that states chimeric redwoods aren't so rare.
"About 60 chimera coast redwoods have been documented within the native coast redwood range south of Del Norte County," states the report, authored by Kent Julin of Arborscience, a subcontractor hired by Sonoma Marin Arborists to examine the tree in Sept. 2012. "The number of documented chimeras is a significant underestimation of the total chimera coast redwood population due to lack of access to a large percentage of the redwood forest."
Julin concluded that the tree is "an unusual chimera coast redwood specimen," but that its health would be harmed by construction and the tree would be a falling or wind hazard to the tracks and passing trains.
"If the siding track cannot be relocated, I recommend tree removal," the arborist report states.
The 52-foot-tall, 40-inch diameter tree sits just north of East Cotati Avenue about 15 feet west of the tracks. A neighbor who knew the family that planted it dates it as being at least 67 years old.
Mansourian said SMART isn't opposed to Stapleton's effort to have the tree moved.
"It would be terrific," he said. "I'll be very excited to do that."