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A large chain-link fence went up around Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square on Tuesday morning, allowing biologists to conduct a survey of birds and bats in preparation for the imminent removal of 20 trees.

The work caught many people by surprise and served as the strongest signal to date that the city is serious about moving forward on the long-delayed and recently fast-tracked $10 million reunification plan.

“I’m upset because they didn’t tell me anything,” said Ralph Morgenbesser, owner of Ralph’s Courthouse Classic Hotdogs, who was forced to move his food cart outside the fence perimeter.

Smaller fences went up around the base of eight redwood trees about two weeks ago after the City Council approved the basic design of the square with two side streets and ample parking.

But those fences were removed and new fencing went up around virtually the entire east and west halves of the square Tuesday. The work took place as an Atlas Tree Surgery truck with a cherry picker arrived to give biologist Greg Tatarian a bird’s-eye view of the upper reaches of the square’s tallest trees.

Tatarian and his wife, Trish, were hired to make sure there are no protected birds or bats nesting in or around the trees slated for removal. If there are any, it could bring the project to a screeching halt, requiring the city to set up buffer zones around the trees in which no work that might disturb the creatures can take place until the fall.

But after a full day of looking, Tatarian said neither he nor his wife spotted any bird or bat activity consistent with nesting.

“There was nothing that indicated they were in the active nesting period at this location,” he said. He planned to return to the site today for some follow-up work but expected to be finished quickly.

Protesters on hand

Several protesters, alerted to the presence of the truck, showed up late Tuesday morning. Some came to observe the work and gather information, while at least one prepared for an act of civil disobedience.

Retired college professor Janet Tracy-Landman, who lives in the city’s Junior College neighborhood, pulled a yellow nylon rope and several bungee cords from her backpack as she talked with other project opponents while watching workers install the fence. Asked what she planned to do with the items, the diminutive activist said she was ready tie or strap herself to a tree if necessary.

“I was thinking it might not look so good to have this old lady carted off in a paddy wagon,” Tracy-Landman said.

Once she realized no trees were being removed Tuesday, however, Tracy-Landman said she wasn’t keen to disrupt survey work. “I’m timid,” she said.

Another activist, Dalia Mixen, said she felt the city had failed to get the proper tree removal permits for project. Many of the trees being removed, including eight redwoods, some more than 60 feet tall, are designated as “heritage” trees by the city’s tree ordinance.

The City Council, by virtue of approving the project and its environmental impact report that studied the tree removal, has permitted their removal, said Jason Nutt, the city’s director of Transportation and Public Works.

“The City Council is the highest authority in the city,” he said.

He said work to remove the 20 trees could begin any time after the survey is complete, if it finds no nesting birds. That means the trees could begin coming down this week and be gone by the end of the month, he said.

The remaining 71 trees will come out once the project begins in June, Nutt said, on a schedule to be determined by the contractor selected to complete the work. Another tree survey will have to take place at that time to make sure no birds have nested in the remaining trees in the interim, Tatarian said.

The reunified square will feature 143 trees, 25 percent more than the 114 currently there.

Activists made it clear that they will do everything they can, legal or otherwise, to block the removal of the trees. Jennifer Coleman has focused on rallying opposition based on the cost of the $10 million project and the city’s plan to borrow some of that money. She said she felt she needed to “go for the jugular” and force the city to put the project on the ballot.

Charles Harding tried twice in recent weeks to get an emergency preliminary injunction against the city, but said he was rebuffed by the courts because he could not demonstrate precisely when the trees were being removed.

Harding, who is 46 with a chest-length beard and gave no profession, said he had “several people ready to chain themselves to these trees,” indicating the fences would prove little obstacle.

Nutt said he is aware protesters may attempt to disrupt the removal. City engineers are working with police to deal with any efforts to block work on the project, he said.

Businesses open

City officials informed downtown businesses of the work plan last week and installed large banners on the fences Tuesday morning telling residents that businesses around the square remain open during construction. The fences will come down once the tree removal work is complete.

Nutt said officials may have missed Morgenbesser’s hot dog cart when they informed businesses of the project. Other business owners around the square said they were pleased to see the work going forward, even if they had some trepidation about the impacts to their income if people avoid the downtown.

“Downtown is missing something,” said Zac McCloskey, manager of Seed to Leaf Organics, a new plant-based restaurant that opened on the square two months ago. “And this could be the missing piece.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.