2016-02-18 / Front Page
City to Caltrans: We want our trees
State wavering on promise to replant oaks lost to freeway expansion
In a Jan. 14 letter obtained by the Acorn, Thousand Oaks Public Works Director Jay Spurgin writes Caltrans District 7 Director Carrie Bowen to address the state agency’s plans to hold off on the proposed planting work until after drought conditions improve and the use of potable water is no longer restricted for landscape purposes.
“The project Environmental Document identified the tree removal as a biological impact that required mitigation through installation of replacement trees based on the standards of the City of Thousand Oaks Oak Tree Ordinance,” Spurgin writes. “Therefore, in order to fulfill the project’s environmental obligations, the planting of these trees is imperative.”
“We believe there were additional oak trees removed during the construction,” he says in the letter.
The letter states that the city is concerned that if the work is deferred or assigned to a future project, it will get lost in the shuffle and “be delayed for several years” due to the “availability of funding and resources.”
Asked for the agency’s response, Caltrans spokesperson Yessica Jovel emailed a statement to the Acorn saying all tree removals were “necessary to safely construct the project.”
“A smart irrigation system has been installed to conserve water as part of Caltrans’ efforts to meet the governor’s drought proclamation,” the statement said. “Caltrans will continue to work closely with our partners on restoring riparian habitat.”
No timeline for when the replacement landscaping will be planted was offered.
As part of its 2015 Drought Action Plan, the state’s transportation department has been evaluating all plantings that are irrigated with potable water, including those that were promised as a condition of project approval.
Although it understands Caltrans’ need to conserve water, the city—which lent Caltrans and the Ventura County Transportation Commission millions of dollars to get the freeway expansion jump-started—intends to protect the scenic highways element of its General Plan, which emphasizes the planting of oak trees to reinforce the city’s image, Spurgin says in the letter.
“We strongly urge Caltrans to replant trees once the project is completed this spring,” the letter states, offering to have the project’s public outreach firm, CALTROP, help inform the media and the public of the reasons for the planting despite the drought conditions.
Asked about the situation Wednesday, Councilmember Claudia Bill-de la Peña said she talked with a Caltrans rep at the most recent VCTC meeting she attended.
Bill-de-la Peña said the rep sounded “cautiously optimistic” that the agency would be able to meet the city’s request to finish the project’s landscaping in a timely manner.
“(Caltrans) did not say no. They’re taking it under advisement,” the council member said.
She said she reminded the rep that if drought-tolerant landscaping is what Caltrans is after, oak trees most certainly fit the bill.
“They’re native to the area. They can stand all kinds of weather. They’re hardy,” the council member said. “Certainly they need water and they need to be cared for, but they can make do without water for quite a long time.”
Bill-de la Peña said the ongoing discussion between city staff and Caltrans over replacement landscaping has done nothing to hurt the two agencies’ relationship, noting they’ve worked together well throughout the two-year expansion.
“Of course we want to see oak trees replanted, but I’m confident we will be able to reach an agreement,” she said. “This is not an adversarial position that we have taken with Caltrans. They are our partners, and as such, I’m sure we’ll come to an agreement.”
On the tree issue, Bill-de la Peña said, “It’s a story that I think will have a happy ending.”