KOWS’ Illegal and Destructive Trenching: How Did This Happen?

Close up of un-permitted trench and tree damage.

On Noveber 28, 2016, a contractor hired by KOWS radio used a backhoe to trench 320 feet well into the critical root zones of 15 mature trees, many of them 40-50 feet tall, and four of them “protected species” (as described in Chapter 8 of Sebastopol’s Municipal Code), at the city’s water storage facility on Pleasant Hill Road.

KOWS had no construction permit, no encroachment permit, no Contractor’s insurance, no signed lease agreement, and no permission to be on the property without an escort. 

The trenching was accomplished with a backhoe only. No consideration was given to strategies that would preserve tree roots. Neighbors called across the fence to the backhoe operator, reminding him to be careful to avoid cutting roots. He responded brusquely that he “heard that loud and clear” and that he had received two memos saying the same thing already that morning.

When neighbors returned several hours later, and saw the horrific results, they took photos and sent them immediately to the city’s Planning Director.

This was not an inevitable outcome.  The trees would still be unharmed:

  • If city officials had required an EIR for this project. The City Council voted on May 31, 2016, to require an EIR, which would have enforced tree protection. The Planning Director’s subsequent Administrative Approval of an altered version of the project allowed him to eliminate the EIR.
  • If the city had considered its own zoning rules (17.100.180), which required a Tree Protection Plan created and implemented by a certified arborist for all Minor Telecommunications Facilities.
  • If the Planning Director had required KOWS to provide a landscape plan. He did not, on grounds that the existing trees provided sufficient screening. It would have made sense to plan to protect those trees during construction!
  • If the city had considered its own General Plan regarding the health and safety of the trees as living things worthy of protection.
  • If KOWS radio and its contractor had considered that the safety of the trees was worth considering alternative methods of excavating, or even better, alternative strategies like above ground housing of lines.

Why didn’t any of this stop a tree root massacre that can’t be undone? The most obvious answer is MONEY. The city has abandoned its land use policies for the sake of an applicant that doesn’t have any money. In the process it has also abandoned the neighborhoods around the site and the environment.

KOWS could not afford an EIR, so the city’s Planning Director offered to Administratively Approve a lowered version of the tower. This version had the exact same trenching requirements as the previous taller version. Knowing this, the city could have used its clear and specific zoning rules and its General Plan goals to devise a way to protect the existing trees on the property.

Having gained an approval, KOWS could have carefully worked out how to preserve the trees during construction. This is a group that prides itself on championing environmental causes of all kinds. Instead, leaders considered only how fast and how cheaply they could get the work done. The station’s persistent lack of funds and its leaders’ eagerness to get something in the ground before pending litigation could possibly put the brakes on– these were the primary considerations that led them to make critical errors like starting work illegally and shredding tree root systems.

It is a shameful and depressing outcome.

And at this writing, nothing has been done to help the trees. The roots have been exposed to heat and air for nearly a week. According to a certified arborist, the roots should be trimmed squarely and reintroduced into carefully replaced soil ASAP. Using burlap soaked in water to protect them from further harm is often suggested if the trench cannot be immediately refilled.

We believe that the roots should be cared for and the trench refilled. The as yet unsigned lease for this project should be torn up and the approval denied. As KOWS has no money for fines and damage to city property, their must be some form of severe, tangible punishment.




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©2019 SHARP Watch

SHARP - Sebastopol Hills Alliance for Rural Preservation Preserving the natural beauty and character of the West Sonoma County Hills, for today and for future generations. Next action: Limit the proliferation of CELL PHONE Towers in the Hills of Sebastopol.

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