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SMART gives go-ahead to large wetland restoration

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The agency tasked with building the North Bay’s commuter rail line is about to embark on a $1.9 million environmental restoration project that will create new wetlands, protect valuable habitat for endangered species and help the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority meet the conditions of its construction permits.

Without discussion, the SMART board Wednesday approved a deal with contractor Stacy and Witbeck/Herzog to restore the former Mira Monte marina site — 56 acres of marshland straddling the Sonoma-Marin county line at the spot where San Antonio Creek joins the Petaluma River.

The agency last year spent $2.5 million on the land that is a key piece of the Petaluma Marsh ecosystem, supporting an array of bird, plant and animal species including the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse and California clapper rail. The habitat work is required by a slew of state and federal agencies that issued environmental permits to SMART as it builds the 43-mile commuter rail line from Santa Rosa to San Rafael. Service is expected to begin in late 2016.

SMART officials touted the restoration work for being within the railroad right of way. The agency had the option to satisfy its permits by purchasing mitigation credits, which could have protected land in another part of the state.

“This project is going to accommodate all of our mitigation needs,” said Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer. “This keeps it in county, spends money locally and gets the area back to its native state.”

The site, a former marina just off Highway 101 in the Sonoma-Marin Narrows, contains some aging buildings and boat docks. All of the man-made structures will be removed during the first phase of project. Initial work began last week. A later phase will remove the paved access road after PG&E relocates its power lines.

Reaction from environmentalists was mixed, with praise for the protection of a local ecosystem but concern for the loss of access to the site for boaters and naturalists. David Keller, founder of the Petaluma River Council, said SMART should allow people to visit the wetlands.

“The restoration work is fabulous,” he said. “But within restoration work, there is a long tradition of maintaining and creating human access. Obviously sensitive areas should be off limits, but it’s really critical for people to see what their money is doing and appreciate it first hand.”

Barbara Salzman, president of the Marin Audubon Society, said the environmental benefits of the project outweigh the loss of access.

“There are a lot of places people can go around the Bay. They don’t have to go everywhere,” she said. “You can view the site from a distance. This certainly will increase wildlife and ecological diversity.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MattBrownPD.

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