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Rocklin's oak mitigation plan stirs debate

Tension over preservation continues despite city's proposed new program
By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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One week after the city of Rocklin made it known they’re going to create an Oak Tree Planning and Management Plan, arborists are upbeat. However, activists on both sides of the Rocklin/Loomis border are worried. Ted Swiecki from Vacaville-based Phytosphere Research prepared the city’s 2006 Urban Forest Report and identified a number of 80- to 150-year-old oak trees in Rocklin. “It’s easy to kill them, but it’s not so easy to replace them,” Swiecki said. “You never really replace a 100-year-old tree until 100 years have gone by. In the meantime, you have lost the benefits associated with that period of time.” The city could partner with Swiecki to review locations for preservation and where new trees can be planted. The plan is to develop a priority list, planting schedule and formulate a monitoring program. But, Swiecki hopes Rocklin will take it one step further. “There are cities that don’t get to that stage. They run out of gas after the plan. They say, ‘well, this is all interesting, but now we have other priorities,” Swiecki explained. Longtime Rocklin resident Elaine O’Deegan expects better leadership from the city, pointing out that Rocklin has a history of bad decision making when it comes to preservation. “The Rocklin city council and the powers that be at the city have never had any interest in saving the history of our city nor in preserving our precious open spaces, our oak trees and the quality of life that these things bring to a city,” O’Deegan said. O’Deegan is a member of Citizens for Tree Preservation, which sprung up after the council refused to use its $1.4 million Oak Tree Mitigation Fund to preserve 396 oak trees on property being auctioned on the southeast corner of Sierra College Boulevard and Rocklin Road. “The mitigation fund should be used to preserve, not replace, our 100-plus year old native oaks,” Rocklin resident Janet Dunlap said. “I think most of us, who were aware of the mitigation fund, thought it was to be used to buy up and preserve oak woodlands, not to replace these huge trees with 15-foot non-native trees.” The city is hopeful that will be addressed in the new plan. According to the city, developer Donahue Schriber last year removed 338 trees while preparing the ground for a 380,000-square-foot retail center at Interstate 80 and Sierra College Boulevard. They did save 23 trees and paid $149,491.20 in mitigation fees to the city. Judi Lapin, spokesperson for Donahue Schriber, defended the development plan and deferred to the city to comment on the oak tree policy. “Donahue Schriber is adhering to the criteria defined by the city,” Lapin said in a statement. The city has also approved plans to remove more than 1,200 oak trees at other retail and housing projects along Sierra College Boulevard and Interstate 80, including 221 more at Donahue Schriber’s Rocklin Crossings site. A final permit request for a proposed Wal-Mart development on the southeast side of Interstate 80 at Sierra College Boulevard must be submited before trees can be clear cut. Loomis resident Irene Smith, who lives four miles from the proposed projects, organized Citizens for Tree Preservation following the clear-cutting on the Commons site. Smith wants more public discussion on tree removal. Currently, the decision to remove oak trees can be made by city staff. However, each of the proposed projects was the focus of a public hearing. “Before a developer can remove oak trees, they must get an oak tree removal permit approval, which typically comes to the city when they submit their grading plans,” Rocklin Director of Community Development Sherri Abbas said. No grading or oak tree removal permits have been approved nor have any oak tree mitigation fees been paid for Rocklin 60, the Crossings and the Center at Secret Ravine. Even so, Smith said the group is focused on trying to get the city to buy the Sierra College Complex Development site as a nature preserve for 396 oaks on the nine-acre site. Smith and other Loomis members of the group have been criticized for meddling in Rocklin affairs. “Irene Smith lives in Loomis,” Rocklin resident Sonja Labosky Cupler blogged on placerherald.com. “Another Loomisite telling Rocklin what to do,” she wrote. Smith defends her group’s focus, claiming they’re saving trees for everyone. “We live two miles from the (Sierra College Complex Development) property and we pass it every day on our way to shop. We are about four miles from the tree slaughter on Granite Drive,” Smith said. “We, and many other Loomis residents, pay lots of money in sales tax to Rocklin.” Over the years, the governing relationship between Loomis and Rocklin has been rocky, even though representatives from both communities serve on a committee focused on bridging gaps. Rocklin Mayor Brett Storey had previously said the city was not interested in buying the property. He said residents are welcome to comment at Rocklin’s public meetings, but his obligation is to Rocklin citizens. “Frankly, I don’t care what people in Loomis want. I care what people in Rocklin want,” Storey said. “Last I looked, Loomis votes have never counted in a Rocklin election. The town of Loomis has seen fit to try and sue Rocklin for nearly every development next to them. Rocklin has consistently won every lawsuit from Loomis and not paid them a dime for those misguided efforts. Our council has been elected to look out for Rocklin and will continue to do so.” The town of Loomis has its own problems with oak trees, however. Controversy over the high price of oak tree mitigation fees erupted in February after it was revealed the town was charging the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist $662,000 for the removal of 192 native oak trees that are in poor to fair condition. The sisters have agreed to replant 400 trees. Some called the decision “environmental extortion.” Swiecki believes Rocklin and Loomis may be missing an opportunity to work together to accomplish the same goal of preserving oak trees. “There have been efforts and urban planning to allow jurisdictions to work across boundary lines to say, ‘here some things we can have common interests in and this is how we can deal with it.’ That’s ideal,” Swiecki said. “It can be done.”