Preservationists try to save West Sacramento trees near Tower Bridge

Once they’re gone, they’re gone, Lana Paulhamus says of the several-stories-high stand of native Western sycamore trees, 13 in a row at the West Sacramento gateway to the Tower Bridge.

The sycamores have stood at the entrance to the span along what is now Tower Bridge Gateway since the bridge’s early days, but Paulhamus and other members of the West Sacramento Conservancy fear that their city’s vision of a bustling, urban waterfront will uproot the trees and the generations of history behind them.

The trees – and the grass-roots group’s uphill battle to save them – are an example of the push-pull between a restless city in the midst of a dramatic growth spurt and conservationists who hope to preserve the community’s natural and historic landmarks.

“We’re not anti-growth, but let’s look at what we’re losing and (ask), is it worth it?” Paulhamus said on a recent Tuesday afternoon as she looked at the block-long line of trees stretching along Tower Bridge Gateway between Third and Fifth streets in the shadow of Raley Field.

Just below the tree line, construction workers pushed dirt and pounded away at foundation forms, early steps in what will become Capitol Yards, a $50 million, 272-unit apartment project in the Raley’s Landing area with a fall 2014 due date. The sycamores are unlikely to survive the development, city officials said.

The Capitol Yards project, along with the 180 acres of housing and entertainment taking shape to the south in the city’s Bridge District, is among the elements West Sacramento leaders say will transform the city.

“It seems so obvious today that’s what we needed to happen,” West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said at the Capitol Yards groundbreaking ceremony in August. “We have these great rivers, we’ve been given this resource. We have this urban connection to the water, which is why these cities are here in the first place.”

Paulhamus says another connection to an earlier West Sacramento could be left behind in progress’ wake.

“We call them the ‘Sentinels of the Gate.’ They were protecting the bridge to the capital of California,” Paulhamus said of the trees.

When it opened in 1935, the Tower Bridge was one of the few vertical-lift bridges west of the Mississippi River – and said to be the first of its kind on the California highway system. Paulhamus said the tree-lined drive to the bridge was designed to “give you something special entering a very special place – the capital of California.”

The conservancy’s stand has won support from botanist and California Native Plant Society board member Glen Holstein, whose challenge of an arborist’s report for the city on the sycamores’ viability has given life to the tree preservation effort.

That initial report in May by Tree Associates found the sycamores to be in poor health, said Dena Kirtley, the city of West Sacramento’s urban forest manager. But the urban forestry firm in November found the trees in fair condition after possibly surviving a fungus earlier in the year, Kirtley said.

The arborist’s clean bill of health, however, will likely not be enough.

The multimillion-dollar Capitol Yards is one of four sites comprising the larger Raley’s Landing development plan of housing, commercial and retail space along the Sacramento River north of Raley Field.

The California Environmental Quality Act requires state and local agencies to identify significant environmental impacts and find ways to avoid or mitigate them, including consideration of historical resources. Raley’s Landing passed CEQA muster in 2006, said Jim Bermudez, a West Sacramento senior city planner.

Scottsdale, Ariz.-based project developer Wolff Co., now owns the land where the trees sit and can remove the trees if it wishes, Kirtley said.

Kirtley said the original plans for the Capitol Yards project were submitted more than two years ago with a parking garage and offices exactly where the trees now reside.

“It’s very unlikely that the trees will be retained,” Kirtley said.

Dan Nethercott, a locally based Wolff development director, offered few words on the sycamores’ fate, saying that his firm had heard from the West Sacramento Conservancy.

“We’re investigating. We’re talking with the city and trying to evaluate the situation,” Nethercott said.

Mitigation and replacement of the trees could cost Wolff upwards of $177,000, Kirtley said.

Rob O’Dea, a Wolff spokesman, did not address the trees directly, but said their fate “isn’t something we take lightly,” adding that projects like Capitol Yards contain a “pragmatic reality of redevelopment.”

Wolff Co. plans to plant 325 trees of varying size on its footprint, what O’Dea called a “very robust landscape plan for how the site will be treated. It’s an aggressive plan for what the landscaping looks like.”

The trees will be a combination of birch, red oak, sycamore, citrus and magnolia, among others, said John Nicolaus, a landscape architect with project partner Sacramento-based Mogavero Notestine Associates. Native and drought-tolerant grasses and screen shrubs will also be part of the landscape mix.

The impact of cutting the Tower Bridge Gateway trees on the city’s urban forest “immediately will be significant because these are very large trees,” Kirtley said. But she noted that mitigation fees for the Capitol Yards project will help fund the planting of about 700 trees citywide in the coming months.

Paulhamus said the decision to cut the sycamores should not be left to a developer. “We live in a community,” she said. “We should have a little more say.”

Carol Witham, president of the Sacramento Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, called for a project redesign to keep the sycamores standing.

“The fact that they are native and in decent condition, the developers should endeavor to design around (the trees) to the extent possible,” she said.

Kirtley said she understood the angst over the sycamores’ fate.

“If I was in a city where no one cares, I’d be concerned,” she said. “I’m glad we have an organization to stand up for trees.”