Illegal clearcut provides ocean view from Planning Commissioner’s home

From the July 7, 2010 edition

By Elaine Weinreb
Press Staff Writer

On June 16, a Trinidad resident noticed a tree removal company clearcutting part of the Tsurai Village archeological site, which is located on the steep hillside below the Wagner Street trail.
The resident was surprised, because he knew that the site was protected. In 2008, the City of Trinidad had signed a contract with the State Coastal Conservancy, the Yurok Tribe, and the Tsurai Ancestral Society, protecting the ancient Native American village site, and making plans to eventually turn it over to the Yurok tribe. The city presently owns the entire 12- acre site.
The resident went to City Hall and asked City Clerk Gabe Adams why the hillside was being cleared.
A few days earlier, a professional tree-trimmer had visited City Hall, saying that he would be clearing some brush near the residence of Trinidad Planning Commissioner Sam Pennisi. Pennisi’s home adjoins the Wagner Street Trail.
Adams had warned the tree-trimmer to stay away from both the trail and the protected City property below it. When he heard the resident’s story, he became alarmed and quickly notified his boss, City Manager Steve Albright.
Albright hastened to the site. A large truck bearing the name of Coastal Tree was parked on the trail, and a worker was operating a chipping machine, tossing shredded debris down the embankment.
A 65-foot-wide swath had been clearcut down the steep slope below the trail, extending halfway down to the beach below. The new cut resembled the corridor cuts made by PG&E when it runs a power line over a forested hillside, and it provided a clear ocean view from Pennisi’s residence.
Albright told the trimmer that he was trespassing on city property, and had to stop work immediately.
“But I haven’t finished the job yet,” the trimmer replied.
“You are finished right now,” Albright replied.
Sharon Pennisi, Sam Pennisi’s wife, insisted that the cut was due to a miscommunication with the trimmer.
“We were away at the time,” she said, “and when we returned, we found this had happened. It was a most unfortunate situation, and we’re very sorry about it.”
Whether or not the cut was the result of a miscommunication, it violated city, state, and possibly federal laws, and created a public relations nightmare for the city. Albright turned the problem over to the Sheriff’s Department, which is currently conducting an investigation.
“This is extremely serious,” Albright said. “This is more than trimming off a few shrubs. This is clearcutting. This is destruction or vandalism of public property. It’s wrong. And it happened in a managed area, with implications for a Native American cultural and historical site. That involves federal law.”
Local Native American people see the event as one more episode in a long history of disrespect and abuse of their land, said a member of the Tsurai Ancestral Society, who asked not to be identified.
The village site is threatened by erosion, as the bluff above it steadily crumbles away. Some of the erosion is due to natural processes, but geologists point out that the erosion has been accelerated by man-made activities – water run-off due to paving, and leakage from failing septic systems.
Removing the trees and brush from the steep hillside will only accelerate the erosion, Albright said.
“We’re going to have costs involved, because we’ll have to go to a professional to find out how to remedy this situation as quickly as possible, before the rains come,” he said.
He said that the city might take civil action against the perpetrator, once the investigation has been completed.
The Tsurai village site has been plagued by grave robbers, who penetrate the thick brush to steal ancient artifacts and human remains. Although the city placed a chain link fence around the top of the cut, it is now more accessible to trespassers.
Neighbors had mixed opinions about the event. One neighbor feared that the bluff would be destabilized by the cut, and was worried about the effect on his own property.
Another neighbor, however, said that he and other property owners trimmed other people’s trees surreptitiously if the vegetation blocked their ocean views. He said he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

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