Recent tree removal in Petaluma to make way for Caltrans interchange projects related to the future Highway 101 widening has left some community members concerned about both the number of trees being cut down by the agency and the current lack of funding to replace the trees.

"To date, no one has been able to tell us how many trees they've removed," said Tree Advisory Committee member and local landscape architect Tammara Norman. "They also can't tell us what sort of tree replacement will occur because they do not have any financing lined up. We're talking about 25-year-old trees they took down, that they won't be able to replace for at least three years. How is that mitigating?"

When the environmental impact report was performed on the Highway 101 widening project back in 2007, it was estimated that Caltrans would need to remove approximately 700-900 trees in the Petaluma area, to address both safety and right-of-way concerns. The EIR called for every tree whose removal left a "major visual impact," to be replaced by a newly planted tree. Trees that were cut down but did not create a visual impact are not required to be replaced. The tree removal currently taking in place in Petaluma is in preparation for work on Highway 101 interchanges throughout town. The interchanges are being upgraded in anticipation of the eventual Highway 101 widening through Petaluma, though there is currently no funding for the widening itself.

According to the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, which coordinates projects in the county for Caltrans, workers are only removing trees that are absolutely necessary to complete the projects safely. To monitor their progress, an onsite biologist has been present at every tree cutting to keep track of the number of trees taken down and to make recommendations.

"We don't have the final count yet, but we should within a month," said SCTA Projects and Programming Director James Cameron. "The project is designed to save as many trees as possible and wherever we find opportunities to save the trees, we do that."

But not everyone is convinced Caltrans is exercising caution when removing the trees. Councilmember Teresa Barrett said that while no one has officially been counting the tree stumps in town, it appears that a large number of trees have already been removed, with more trees still needing to be cut. Barrett worried that Caltrans would exceed the allotted 900 trees by the time it finished. She also expressed concern that Caltrans does not yet have funding to replace the trees.

"If Caltrans doesn't have the money, they aren't supposed to go forward with the project," said Barrett. "You're only allowed to carry out this project because you can mitigate. Justice delayed is justice not provided."

According to Cameron, more trees could be cut than originally predicted if crews determine that additional trees must be removed for safety reasons. He said that he does not believe that has been the case to date.

Cameron added that Caltrans will begin replanting trees as soon as the Highway 101 widening project is completed sometime in 2016. He said that while they don't have the funds to replace the cut trees at this time, there are plenty of grant programs that will help them when they are ready to begin the landscaping portion of the project.

But city Program Manager Larry Zimmer cautioned that people shouldn't expect an exact replacement of the number of trees that have been cut. "While there will be a future landscaping project, Caltrans will not be putting back as many trees as we're losing," said Zimmer.

Cameron said that Caltrans will follow the EIR requirements and will replace the trees that are removed and leave what is deemed a "visual impact," though it remains unclear what percentage of the total number of trees that will be. Zimmer said that the city has been working closely with SCTA, trying to get final numbers and keep a focus on minimizing tree removal. But Norman said that until she sees how many of the removed trees Caltrans replants, she will remain skeptical.

"The question is how many Caltrans will be (replanting)," she said. "The trees they are removing bring a lot more to the community that just visual impacts. They help air quality, house wildlife, offer sound buffering and help with water runoff. It's disappointing."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)