By Gary Meyer
Kern County General Services Division Manager Matt Pontes told an Oak Tree Subcommittee Tuesday, June 29 that he will examine the Kern County Branch Library construction contract for its specifications regarding protection of heritage trees. He said he would report back to the group with his findings by Thursday, July 1. The committee wants to confirm whether the contract itself is faulty or if the practices of the contractor are not in compliance.
The committee was formed June 15 to address corrective actions after two heritage Valley oak trees that the community had been promised would be preserved were destroyed on June 12 at the library construction site.
In April, an arborist visited the site. His May 19 report found that careless grading had cut 42 inches of soil away from the roots of the trees, endangering their ability to survive. The county then said that an earthquake shear line beneath the site made it a liability to leave the trees standing. The trees were cut down at 7 a.m. Saturday morning June 12, enraging community members who had not been informed of the situation.
Kern County Construction Services Director Mark Russell, AIA, said “I know this looks bad, like we were sneaking in there to do this,” but, he said, the time was selected to minimize interference with construction on the building during the week.
Pontes was responsive to requests and suggestions by the committee Tuesday, but was held to task during the meeting by two persistent subcommittee members, architect Max Williams and Antioch Nursery owner Richard Sheffield, for the county’s failure to protect the oaks from damage over the past eight months, and for continuing failures by the county to ensure that remaining trees are protected from further damage at the site.
“We are running out of time,” Max Williams told Pontes.
“Before November that parking lot will be paved—they have to do it before winter,” he said. “Five trees are still on-site… and are still at risk.… One day after the [special meeting two weeks ago] there were welding operations being carried out within 48 inches of the remaining trees…. If one more of these trees dies, there will be serious litigation,” Williams told the county representative without hesitation.
Sheffield told Pontes, “You guys need to be proactive, instead of waiting for us to tell you what you should be doing,” adding that the county should hire a firm right now to treat the remaining trees for shock and do everything they can to ensure they will survive. “Instead of minimizing [the care of the trees], step up and take the high road and maximize,” he said.
Pontes agreed to take all concerns raised to his superiors at the county and to get answers to several demands by Thursday, July 1:
1) County is to agree that both whole downed trees (not just part of one) be purchased from GroundBreakers Construction and transported to the location agreed to by the subcommittee, where the tree remains will stay until time to use portions for designs in the new library.
2) Pontes will examine the specifications in the construction contract to determine whether the specs for protective measures were not followed or if they were faulty. This, everyone agreed, would indicate where the liability rests for the damage done.
3) Anne Weber asked for an agreement from the county that if any further trees should be considered for removal, community members would first be consulted. Pontes said he could promise in relation to the library project, but that he was not able to promise in general.
It was agreed that longer- range matters such as a countywide oak tree ordinance and long-term care for trees in the park would be agenda items soon. The next meeting date will be set after answers are received on July 1 .
Meanwhile, a committee of mountain residents is forming an action preparedness system and a telephone tree in case another unannounced early morning oak removal is attempted by Kern County Parks, Kern County Roads or the Construction Services Department.
The tree in the center of Park Drive near the library is of special concern. Roads department Senior Engineer Barry Nienke said Tuesday, June 29 that no encroachment permit had been requested, “and we wouldn’t grant one,” to remove the tree.
Another committee is exploring legal action to protect the community’s interests in preserving their heritage Valley oaks. Linda Robredo is working to confirm that the wood from the oaks removed June 12 is preserved.
This is part of the July 02, 2010 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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