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Work to remove several trees in preparation for the reunification of Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square now will begin around mid-February, slightly later than city officials had hoped.

The city originally sought to cut down the 20 trees, including eight mature redwoods, before the beginning of the bird nesting season on Feb. 1.

The goal was to remove the trees to prevent birds and bats from taking up residence in them and causing delays for construction crews that hope to get underway in early June.

“We did originally intend to get it done sooner, but it didn’t work out that way,” said Colleen Ferguson, deputy director of capital projects for the city.

Hours after the City Council voted last week to move forward with the project — much to the consternation of opponents who wanted to save the trees — the city fenced off eight redwoods slated for removal. But the mad dash to remove them by the Feb. 1 nesting period didn’t happen because the city is still finalizing insurance requirements and other details with its contractor.

On Monday morning, the mighty trees were still standing and signs telling people to “Please Keep Out” hung on the fencing, along with banners explaining the goals of the $10 million project.

On Monday afternoon, the city received a petition with 368 signatures from people seeking to “save the heritage trees from being cut down.”

The council’s vote last Tuesday approved a master plan for the new square that removes 91 of the 114 trees, including eight of 30 redwoods, reinstalls side streets Hinton and Exchange avenues with diagonal parking on both sides, and creates an X-shaped patch of grass in the center, similar to the footprint of the original courthouse.

After years of delay, the project is now fast-tracked because of the support of downtown business leaders, a more robust city budget and a council that strongly supports bringing more housing downtown. Construction is slated to begin in June and be completed by the holiday shopping season.

The city couldn’t get the trees removed before Feb. 1 because it needed additional time to finalize a $130,000 contract with the tree removal company it selected just last week, Atlas Tree Surgery.

The city needs to make sure the contractor has the proper insurance and performance bonds guaranteeing the work will be completed, Ferguson said.

Once the contract is approved, the company will have 10 working days to begin the removal of the trees, pieces of which will be used in a future creek restoration project.

Once work begins, the company will have 20 working days to finish the job, Ferguson said. That means work could stretch into mid-March, she said.

Removing trees during the nesting period is not a significant problem, but requires some additional work, Ferguson said.

If the trees have to be removed during the breeding season between February and September, a pre-construction report by a biologist is required within seven days of breaking ground, according to the project’s approval.

A species of concern identified in the project’s environmental report is Allen’s hummingbird, which migrates to Mexico in the winter and could use the Santa Rosa Creek area as habitat, according to the report.

If no nesting birds or bats are identified, construction can proceed without restriction. If some are found, buffer zones need to be established around the trees, effectively halting work on the project for months. Similar restrictions exist for bats.

A delay in the project would thrill 81-year-old Norma Baumsteiger. The Oakmont resident circulated the petition and has been keeping daily vigil in or around the square, urging the city to save the trees.

She said the project should either be put to a vote of the people or redesigned to protect all the trees, especially the redwoods.

The notion of cutting down healthy, mature trees that provide habitat for wildlife is shameful, Baumsteiger said.

She said most of the people she talks with about the tree removal are opposed or had no idea the project was even happening, which she said proves the city is moving too fast.

“This is not urgent; this is stupid,” Baumsteiger said of the project.

City officials have responded to such criticism by noting that reunifying the square has been a goal of numerous councils for decades.

They have stressed that the redwood trees are less than 50 years old and that most will be preserved.

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

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

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