The sound of chainsaws roared through Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square Wednesday as the city began felling decades-old trees in preparation for the reunification of the square this summer.
A crew from Atlas Tree Surgery limbed and then began removing five trees on the east side of the square, the first of 20 being removed to prevent birds and bats from nesting in them this spring.
The work is expected to be complete by the end of the month, after which the fences will come down until construction begins in earnest on the $10 million project in June.
A handful of protesters who have decried the tree removal as hasty and unnecessary observed the work from behind fences said they were disheartened by the move.
“We’re just beside ourselves looking at the graveyard over there,” said Norma Baumsteiger, the 81-year-old Oakmont resident who has been a regular presence around the square in recent weeks, gathering signatures urging residents to oppose the removal.
She vowed a recall effort against the City Council and mayor.
“The people have spoken and City Hall never listened,” Baumsteiger said. “The people are tired of talking and now they’re going to be shouting.”
The idea of reunifying the two halves of Old Courthouse Square, split by Mendocino Avenue after the courthouse was removed in 1968, has been around for decades but only gained momentum last year. Business leaders and City Council members agreed the project represented the city’s best chance of revitalizing a downtown plagued by commercial vacancies.
But a quick redesign that included wider side streets with more parking than the previous plan and a fast-tracked construction timetable took many residents, many of whom assumed the project was indefinitely stalled, by surprise. The removal of 91 of the 114 trees in the square, including eight of 30 mature redwoods, has provoked the most ire, though concerns about the cost, traffic impacts and incomplete design remain.
Some protesters had vowed to try to disrupt the effort by tying themselves to the trees, but that didn’t happen Wednesday. The trees have been behind a tall fence since Tuesday and the city hired private security guards to patrol the area.
Upon receiving word from wildlife biologists Greg and Trish Tatarian that their Tuesday inspection found the trees free of nesting birds, workers began limbing two large Monterey pines in the morning, then moved to two towering redwoods in the afternoon, one more than 70 feet tall.
They used a bucket truck to access the lower portion of the trees, then climbed into the canopy to slice limbs away from the trunks. Branches came crashing to the ground, where workers fed them into a powerful chipper.
The result by mid-afternoon was the odd sight of four spindly tree trunks with no branches sticking out of the ground. As rain poured down and the pungent scent of pine filled the air, workers began lopping the trunks into large sections that fell to earth with deep, dull thuds.
The remaining 71 trees will come out once the project begins in June. The reunified square will feature 143 trees, 25 percent more than the square previously contained.
The city has worked hard to minimize disruptions to downtown businesses, said Randy Lopez of the city’s public works department. Officials agreed to delay the removal of two redwood trees near Flavor Bistro until a time when the restaurant is not serving food on its nearby outdoor patio, Lopez said.
Public works officials earlier installed large signs stating that businesses around the square are open.
It remains to be seen if protesters have any legal recourse to halt the project. Attorney Rose Zoia has tried in vain to convince the city that it needs permits to remove the trees under its own ordinance, and protester Charles Harding said he will try yet again Thursday to get a stop-work order from a Sonoma County Superior Court judge.
While he respects the views and passion of some of the protesters, Bernie Schwartz, owner of California Luggage on Fourth Street, said he’s impressed with how the city has moved boldly to complete a long overdue upgrade.
“Those of us who have faced what the downtown has been for the past 35 years are excited about the potential this project brings,” Schwartz said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.