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An old railroad trestle along the Petaluma River has long been in the foreground of the view from riverside restaurants in downtown Petaluma.

Although the wooden structure has fallen into disrepair, it remains part of the town's history and, for al fresco diners, part of the scenery as they watch the river meander by beyond a three-foot-tall security railing.

But adding a six-foot-tall chain link fence is quite another sight, say local business owners who are objecting to a portion of a the metal fencing installed by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district to keep the curious away from the dilapidated plywood and timber track.

Maureen McGowan, owner of the riverside Graffiti restaurant, calls the fence a "monstrosity."

"It just destroys our whole downtown," she said. "There's no reason to do that at all."

For years, the Water Street trestle essentially has been abandoned. Trains haven't run on it since 1994, when the trestle was closed to freight locomotives. Five years later, it was partially fenced off as a safety hazard.

The 1922 trestle was once part of the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad, one of several local lines that transported passengers and goods such as eggs, apples and hay. At one point, the electric trolley system had 200 cars running 10,000 carloads of freight and 250,000 passengers annually from as far away as Forestville, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.

But recently SMART, the rail agency that owns the trestle, put up a small portion of fence at the Turning Basin, behind a 24-hour gym and the Apple Box caf? Business owners were told it was part of a longer fence planned."SMART is trying to protect people from the trestle," said Larry Zimmer, Petaluma's capital improvements manager, noting the rotted-out plywood is near a walkway. The trestle is not planned to become part of the active SMART train line.

SMART real estate manager Laura Giraud did not return messages left Friday seeking comment.

Petaluma Downtown Association Director Marie McCusker said she complained on behalf of area businesses about a flimsy fence behind the caf?

"But at no time did I imagine it would be (replaced with) a 6-foot chain link fence, which really doesn't add to the ambiance down there," she said. "I get the liability and safety issues, but there are ways of working around this."

The stir over the fencing almost eclipsed a recent update by Zimmer to the City Council on trestle rehabilitation efforts.

He presented three possible directions for further work: Restore the existing structure, demolish and rebuild it or supplement the existing structure with new supports.

But about 70 percent of the timber pilings are beyond repair, Zimmer said. That renders much rehab work impossible without large amounts of funding — which so far hasn't materialized. Estimates have been as high as $5.5 million to repair the 500-foot structure.

Council members and preservationists weren't happy with Zimmer's suggestion that demolition and reconstruction was the most cost-effective solution.

"There's a good deal of material that I think is being overlooked and which I think can be reused," said Chris Stevick, director of the nonprofit Petaluma Trolley Living History Railway Museum.

His group and others are trying to bring back a historic trolley to run on the trestle, possibly eventually linking it to tracks that would take shoppers from downtown to the outlet shops on the north end of town.

Friday, McGowan and other business owners said they'd been told SMART may reassess the fence plans.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.