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City votes to landscape Heritage Park

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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A measure to upgrade a vacant lot on Front Street and Rocklin Road drew debate between Rocklin City Council members and critics of the city’s oak tree preservation policies. The project approved during the Jan. 10 council meeting would expand the park with turf and three oak tree groves on the north side of St. Mary’s Church. “I think we wanted to be able to use it for special events and other opportunities,” Rocklin Director of Public Services Rick Forstall told council members. The lot is currently used for the city’s annual tree lighting festival in December. Rocklin leases the vacant lot from Union Pacific Railroad, which has given the city permission to make the landscape improvements. Rocklin’s Historical society has kicked in $5,000 to pay for additional plants and trees as well as concrete work. Volunteers from the Rotary Club of South Placer have agreed to help plant the trees. “I think this is a great project,” Council member George Magnuson said. The debate arose as the council wrestled with how to pay for the project. According to the city’s original plan, $25,000 from the Oak Tree Mitigation Fund would be used to plant the oak trees and help get them started. The issue, however, was the $900 annual maintenance cost proposed to come from the city’s cash strapped General Fund. Currently, the city is running as much as a $500,000 deficit this fiscal year. Mayor Brett Storey and council members Scott Yuill and Diana Ruslin initially voted against the proposal. “I do not wish to incur any more costs from the general fund,” Storey said. With the measure defeated, council member Peter Hill asked to save the project by using Oak Tree Mitigation Funds to pay for the turf. “I’m opposed to dipping into the oak tree fund to do that because I don’t think it is appropriate to do it that way,” Hill explained. “But I’m willing to do that to get this project off the ground because I think this project will be a significant improvement to that part of the community and will make the church a much better place for activities.” While the $1.4 million oak tree mitigation fund is intended to replace oak trees in the community removed by property owners or developers, City Manager Rick Horst said the council has the authority to make the change. “The Oak Tree Mitigation Plan does allow an exemption for the city council if they chose to make it to use the funds to support the project, but not directly related,” Horst said. “It was written very loosely, I think, intentionally to give the council some discretion.” Magnuson felt confident the estimated $40,000 interest on the fund will more than cover the annual maintenance. Council members then voted 4-1 to approve Hill’s motion. Mayor Storey cast the dissenting vote. One reason Storey said he voted against the measure was Rocklin’s $1 million shortfall in its Park Maintenance Fund, the dollars used to cut grass and other costs maintaining the city’s 30 parks. The City has been reducing the amount of turf in existing city parks as a cost cutting measure. “We’ve been trying to get rid of turf everywhere possible to save dollars. Now we’re adding it,” Storey said. He added that he would have preferred a park with oak tree groves over dirt — without grass. The council decision both surprised and concerned Irene Smith, a member of Citizens for Tree Preservation, a group formed out of concern for loss of native trees and open space. Smith has been lobbying the city to purchase an oak tree lined parcel of land at Sierra College Boulevard and Rocklin Road for months. However, the city has waved off the idea and council members have refused to discuss it publicly. “I’m more than shocked and horrified at Rocklin’s council decision to buy sod using tree mitigation funds,” Smith said. “How can they possibly do this as a replacement for allowing thousands of native trees to be destroyed?” The city considered an alternative for the lot — a 27-unit parking lot for the train station. Even so, Smith said the way the council handled the situation makes it look like the oak tree fund was used under false pretenses. “When are the residents going to wake up to their shenanigans,” Smith said. “Oak trees are our heritage — not sod!” Planting of the sod and trees could begin next month.