Removal of 61 trees casts pall over solar project in Arden parking lot

A parking lot reconstruction project featuring solar canopies designed to meet nearly all the electricity needs of a federal office building in the Arden Arcade area has raised questions about how to balance clean energy with tree preservation and other environmental concerns.

Judith Lamare, spokeswoman for Trees for Sacramento, said her organization and the Sierra Club Sacramento Group fully support installation of solar canopies in the 8.5-acre parking lot of the federal building at 2800 Cottage Way. But they question plans to remove 61 trees and also worry that stormwater from the parking lot will drain into Strong Ranch Slough, which runs through the heart of the Arden Arcade community.

About 850 people, including employees of the Bureau of Reclamation, work in the Cottage Way building. The bureau announced that the parking lot, on the south side of the building, will be closed from Tuesday through Nov. 6, requiring employees to park off site, or to work from home or other locations.

Lamare said her group was alerted to the project by people who work in the building and were concerned about the planned tree removal. She accused the General Services Administration, which is overseeing the project, of being less than transparent when the environmental groups sought documentation of the project’s environmental impacts.

“The Sierra Club Sacramento’s position is it generally supports the GSA solar project, but believes the project should be constructed in a way that minimizes environmental harm, in compliance with applicable law,” Lamare said.

In an email response to questions about the project submitted by The Sacramento Bee, the GSA said it awarded a contract last year to a solar developer to install photovoltaic systems in several federal buildings in Northern California, including the 2800 Cottage Way location. The parking lot, which has about 840 stalls, was built in 1968 and has undergone only minor improvement since then, officials said.

“The repaving project will address the structural issues beneath the parking lot surface that have caused cracking and drainage problems as the parking lot has deteriorated over time,” the GSA said. “All of the the asphalt currently forming the parking lot will be 100 percent recycled, pulverized on site and included in the new asphalt mixture.”

The reconstructed lot will provide 866 parking spaces to accommodate employees and visitors, GSA officials said, and solar canopies will cover 90 percent of the parking lot. The canopies will be used to generate power for the building, producing 2.5 MWh of electricity annually and preventing the emission of more than 45,000 metric tons of carbon over the life of the system, officials said.

“With the new solar canopies in the parking lot and the existing rooftop system, GSA will be close to achieving a net-zero status for the campus and will produce almost 100 percent of the building’s electricity needs,” agency officials said.

Removing trees to install solar panels in a parking lot is a new situation for us, but we’re going to work to achieve a good balance between the two.

Chris Andis, spokeswoman, Sacramento County Planning and Environmental Review

Although 61 existing trees on the property must be removed for the repaving and solar installation, officials said at least 61 drought-tolerant trees will be planted on the federal property as part of the campus landscape. They said the GSA is working with Sacramento County officials regarding requirements for the preservation and protection of heritage and landmark trees, as well as tree removal and replacement criteria, and parking lot design and landscaping standards. Officials said the trees are scheduled for removal by Oct. 1.

Chris Andis, a spokeswoman for the county planning department, said Friday that the county had just received site plans for the project and planning officials expect to meet with federal project representatives this week.

“Removing trees to install solar panels in a parking lot is a new situation for us, but we’re going to work to achieve a good balance between the two,” Andis said in an email.

Lamare said a member of her group was told that the solar project will not reach the last two rows in the southern section of the parking lot, where the largest trees are located. Nevertheless, she said, employees were told that those trees would be removed as well.

As for stormwater runoff from the parking lot, GSA officials said the project will dramatically improve the drainage system, noting that a storm filter and retention basin will be installed to manage the runoff.

Representatives of the environmental groups remain skeptical that the the drainage plan is adequate, saying neither state nor county regulatory agencies have signed off on it.

Jim Pachl, a member of Trees for Sacramento and the Sierra Club, said he was sent a copy of the drainage plan late Friday.

“It is undated, describes certain standards that must be met, says that there must be 30 filters installed but does not disclose the location of the proposed detention basin, pipes or other drainage facilities,” he said in an email. “In other words, its drainage plan appears to be incomplete at this time.”

Cathy Locke: 916-321-5287, @lockecathy