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KEA obtained a press release announcing that California’s Department of Fish and Game will be joining a lawsuit brought by environmental groups fighting the Corps of Engineers’ policy requiring vegetation removal from levees. The lawsuit alleges that the Corps failed to perform a proper NEPA analysis on the levee vegetation policy and that the policy violates the Endangered Species Act.

Coeur d’Alene’s problem is horrible, but California’s may be worse — requiring miles and miles of tree removal and habitat destruction at a $7.5 billion price tag. Having a state agency involved in the litigation puts significant additional pressure on the Corps. KEA is currently reviewing the filings in the lawsuit for possible application to Coeur d’Alene’s dike road trees.

The California Department of Fish and Game press release dated November 9th:

The California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) today commenced the process to join federal litigation that challenges the removal of vegetation on levees. 

The case, Friends of the River, et. al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, et. al. was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. It essentially challenges the Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) adoption of a national policy that requires removing virtually all trees and shrubs on federal levees. 

DFG, along with many other local, state and federal agencies, has been in discussion with the Corps about this policy for several years, said DFG Director Charlton H. Bonham. Its unfortunate that the discussions havent led to a more agreeable outcome, but if adhered to, the policy will do incredible damage to Californias remaining riparian and adjacent riverine ecosystem, especially in the Central Valley.

Roundtable discussions on the policy have included the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), Central Valley Flood Protection Board, National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. DWR and DFG have repeatedly expressed concerns about the policy in letters to the Corps. The policy has also received pushback from farmers and other water users.

The Central Valley is home to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Flood Management System. This flood protection system has approximately 1,600 miles of federal project levees along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and tributaries. This policy would require removing most of the remaining five percent of riparian forest there.

Riparian habitat is essential for several endangered species including Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, riparian brush rabbit, Western yellow-billed cuckoo and Swainson’s hawk. Moreover, the riparian habitat provides scenic beauty and recreational enjoyment for people up and down the river.

The policy adopted by the Corps fails to comply with either the National Environmental Policy Act or the federal Endangered Species Act.

Historically, the Corps has allowed and even encouraged the planting of trees and other vegetation on California levees. They have even collaborated with state and federal agencies in developing levee design approaches intended to benefit federal- and state-listed threatened and endangered species. The new policy directly conflicts with their past actions.

DFG and DWR estimate that complying with the Corps’ policy could cost up to $7.5 billion and divert funds away from more significant levee deficiencies like seepage and erosion.

DFG seeks to join current plaintiffs in the case including Friends of the River, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.

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An incompetent Corps of Engineers and an inflexible FEMA are about to destroy a Coeur d’Alene treasure unnecessarily. The out-of-town and out-of-control federal agencies are blindly calling for the City of Coeur d’Alene to remove hundreds of mature trees from the dike that follows the lake and riverfront around City Park and North Idaho College. (News coverage here, here, here, and here.)

Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s, the dike runs just less than a mile and it purports to protect NIC and the Fort Grounds area from 100-year flood events. The main significance, however, is that the dike protects NIC and the Fort Grounds from unreasonable flood insurance premiums.

Nationwide, FEMA administers the flood insurance program for properties in potential flood zones. Very high premiums for very limited coverage are available to properties built in an area at high risk for floods. However, areas protected by a dike certified by the Corps of Engineers are not considered high-risk. If not certified by the Corps of Engineers, FEMA won’t consider the dike as sufficient flood protection. Burned by the experience in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina, both the Corps and FEMA are taking a much harder look at dike certifications around the country.

In a recent inspection, the hammer fell on Coeur d’Alene. A third-party inspection team found some 137 deficiencies in the flood protection system. Many of the deficiencies are minor, and many are legitimate, but the tree-removal issue is the most significant. According to the directive from the Corps of Engineers, all trees on the dike – along the road and to the base of both sides of the dike – will need to be removed. All the roots from the trees will need to be removed. And the dike will then need to be reconstructed to patch the tree-removal.

At a briefing to the City’s Public Works Committee, Coeur d’Alene engineer Gordon Dobler asked for approval of a mitigation plan to address the deficiencies. The full City Council will need to approve the plan at their next meeting. The cost to implement the plan is not entirely clear.

We hope the city pushes back. KEA would be the first to defend a federal environmental agency decision when it is based in clear law and regulation, sound science, and with the public health and safety a foremost priority. This, however, is not the case in this Corps of Engineers decision.

The Corps actually acknowledges that there is no scientific basis for their restriction of vegetation in flood control levees. The Corps’ regulatory authority doesn’t come from law or regulation, but rather an “Engineering Technical Letter” disconnected from what the regulations (pdf) actually require. And the local impacts could be significant. For one thing, the dike is likely to contain toxic materials from mine wastes which would have thoroughly contaminated the shoreline when the dike was constructed in the 1940s. Tearing up the dike could make a real mess. And who knows how much it’ll cost.

The last major flood event that would have seriously implicated the dike was in 1933, before the dike was built.  More recent floods – like in 1997, 2008, and this past year – have not come close to inundating the dike. Certainly, flood control lessons learned in Minot, North Dakota this year should not be lost on anyone, but a more realistic assessment of risks and costs might argue in favor of keeping the trees. Or coming up with a different approach.

In any event, we hope the City Council will shelve the tree-removal decision until more can be known and options can be studied. The trees provide real value to the park and the community every day. Removing them to accommodate out-of-town federal agencies acting only on fear and a hunch and remote probabilities would be a shame.

UPDATE: Here’s the online version. Link to it, email it, post it to your facebook friends!

 

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Tubbs Hill -- July 11, 2011. Photos by KEA BlackberryCam

More about all of this soon enough, but yesterday afternoon we were pleased to take part in a unique event. KEA has been invited to participate in a City of Coeur d’Alene committee reviewing accessibility and other issues on Tubbs Hill. Yesterday, the committee got a first hand experience with accessibility concerns on a brief field trip to the east side of the Hill — and three committee participants in wheelchairs took a first-ever trip to our City’s crown jewel.

Recall that concern over impacts to Tubbs Hill caused the City Council to remove Tubbs Hill from the concept plan for McEuen Park. The Council, however, insisted that the City continue to work with stakeholders on accessibility and management issues on Tubbs Hill. This new committee has met preliminarily a couple of times and has a great deal of work to do. This was the committee’s first fact-finding outing.

But yesterday, the scope of the work — and the reason for doing it — became much more clear and concrete.  On trails most of us have no trouble navigating, wheelchairs have a great deal of difficulty. Relatively gentle uphill slopes, downhill slopes, and cross-trail slopes make travel much more difficult in a wheelchair. The small outcroppings of rocks and tree roots that most of us simply step on or step over can be impassable obstructions to a wheelchair. It’ll be a serious challenge for the committee to find opportunities for access that eliminate the natural barriers of the terrain without damaging the hill or compromising its fiercely-protected natural state.

But Tubbs Hill is an extraordinary place — we saw walkers, joggers, swimmers, dogs, bratty teenagers, tourists, locals, and all manner of people enjoying the beautiful natural surroundings.  Yesterday, it included people in wheelchairs. And there was an appreciation that they belonged there as much as anyone.

 

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The estimated costs for McEuen Park were released this morning and, not surprisingly, a huge hunk of the costs for the park are in the parking facility. We still think this is both unfortunate and unnecessary. The total McEuen project costs, according to the released estimates (pdf), range from $23.8 million to $28.0 million.

Although drowned out by noisier complaints about the boat launch (and maybe to a lesser extent Tubbs Hill), the design of the Front Avenue parking facility remains a big gripe of ours. It provides an oversupply of parking, in the wrong location, and in a manner that physically and visually separates downtown from the park and lakefront.  Now that the cost figures have been released, the problems are even more clear.

Team McEuen estimates Front Avenue parking to cost from $7.0 million to $8.3 million and other Front Avenue improvements to cost from $1.2 million to $1.4 million. In other words, Front Avenue and its parking consumes about one third of the cost of the entire project. Moreover, these costs do not include a second below-street  “Centennial Level” of parking, which has been shown on previous Team McEuen illustrations (as shown above). This newly “alternate” lowest level of parking would add another $5.5 million to $6.5 million.

A better, cheaper, and more functional location for downtown and McEuen parking is not under Front Avenue, but on vacant and underutilized properties north of Sherman. Construction and design costs are likely to be much lower, and the more central location would be much better for the future economic development purposes of downtown. We think the investment in improvements to McEuen Park are worth doing, but only if the investments are in the park itself, not a parking facility.

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We were disappointed to see the Coeur d’Alene press editorial today, pitting well-meaning citizens against each other unnecessarily over accessibility to Tubbs Hill. The CDA Press promotes a false choice between accessibility and protecting the natural setting — both values important to our community, but not necessarily competing.

As we wrote previously, we believe the Tubbs Hill experience should be accessible to people of all abilities, but perhaps such accessibility should be part of an overall strategy for Tubbs Hill, not McEuen Park.  The Americans with Disabilities Act — landmark civil rights legislation — requires very specific accessibility design and performance standards for new and substantially improved trails, specifying such things as the trail’s width, slope, surface, headroom, passing room, and obstructions. Such standards will be expensive and difficult to implement on Tubbs Hill in the manner and location suggested by Team McEuen without significant construction activity and risk of harm to the overall visual experience. There are other, and much better, accessibility possibilities for Tubbs Hill worth exploring first.

What was proposed as an after-thought add-on to McEuen renovations should not be used as a wedge in our community. Tubbs Hill accessibility is a problem separate and apart from McEuen Park, and it should be considered in a different planning process — a process, we hope, which can be more inclusive and collaborative than simply picking sides, as the CDA Press would have us do.

 

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We are in the process of developing our detailed comments to Team McEuen regarding the proposals for McEuen Park. Over the next few days, we’ll roll out some of our thoughts and concerns relating to the proposal here on the blog. Today: Parking.

Team McEuen’s approach to parking is quite literal in its adherence to the city-prescribed design principle to “ensure the replacement of any displaced facilities with equal or better facilities.” The team has essentially doubled the parking by place several below-grade levels under Front Street and by expanding the lot by City Hall.

While we are 100% supportive of the removal of the current wasteful and ugly surface parking lot, Team McEuen’s design approach to parking, in our view, is still troublesome. The design is visually problematic and limits pedestrian access to the park. Moreover, we believe the proposed parking is expensive, oversupplied, and in the wrong location for the broader purposes of the City of Coeur d’Alene.

1. Access to the park – The location and structure of the parking facility on Front Street will seriously limit the points of access to the park itself from downtown. Access from downtown will be limited to discrete stairways and bridge structures from the parking facility into the park. Indeed a pedestrian from downtown will need to traverse the parking. The goal of linking downtown to the waterfront is actually impeded by placing the parking structure along and under Front Street. Access, both to and from the park, by crowds for big events like the Fourth of July, is actually going to be impeded by such limited access.  Besides, denser structured parking would be better located on the City Hall side, or better yet, a block or two away in downtown itself.

2. Sightlines from the park toward the city – While much detailed work has been done to enhance and protect the vistas from the park to the water, the parking structure will be seriously to the detriment of the vista from the park toward downtown. Indeed when a visitor looks from the well-appointed park back toward the commercial center of town, the view will be, essentially, a two story wall of parking. While vegetative screening is likely to help somewhat, the distinct and severe structural boundary will remain for all to see.

3. Oversupplied in the wrong location – The emphasis on the parking in Team McEuen’s design has resulted in a dramatic oversupply of parking that will only on the rarest of occasions be used to capacity.  Indeed, the current lots are only rarely at capacity. Moreover, to the extent that the parking capacity is needed for the downtown central business district, it is located at what will be the permanent periphery of downtown, making downtown growth northerly less probable. To the extent that the parking is needed for the park itself, it is at a location which will make pedestrian traffic through the business district much less likely, limiting the purported economic advantages to redeveloping the park. We strongly suggest that the bulk of the parking, and particularly any significant parking structures, be located away from the park, above Sherman Ave.  This will be a much greater benefit to downtown businesses, and will ameliorate the impacts of having a structure on the park’s border.

4. Expensive – Structured parking may be the most expensive feature at McEuen Park, and it would be a bit of a travesty if a large proportion of the funding for the park’s renovation went to parking rather than the park itself. We are not necessarily opposed to structured parking downtown –it could serve a number of important redevelopment purposes – just not at McEuen Park. There are a number of locations north of Sherman Ave. that would make much better locations for a parking facility, and at which the structure could be built much less expensively, or as part of a mixed-use development less dependent on government-arranged financing.

 

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We are in the process of developing our detailed comments to Team McEuen regarding the proposals for McEuen Park. Over the next few days, we’ll roll out some of our thoughts and concerns relating to the proposal here on the blog. Today: Tubbs Hill.

Indeed, one of the more controversial aspects of the Team McEuen design is that a number of proposed features impact Tubbs Hill. The designers have proposed an accessible trail across the north face of Tubbs Hill, enhanced trailheads with structures and water features, an observation platform, and a sledding hill. The designers have explained that the Tubbs features help the designers with their charge to provide the “greatest number of uses for the greatest number of people, of all ages and abilities, throughout all seasons.”

The Tubbs Hill Foundation, an influential advisory group that keeps a watchful eye over the City’s natural masterpiece, issued a statement last month(pdf) regarding the McEuen Park plans re-emphasizing their desire to preserve Tubbs Hill in its natural state. Specifically, the Foundation opposed paving of Tubbs Hill trails, and it opposed “constructed elements” on Tubbs Hill, specifically itemizing the trailheads, an observation platform, water features, and the sledding hill. The Foundation says such elements are inconsistent with the long-standing management plan which states, “Tubbs Hill, a city park, shall be managed to provide for people’s use and enjoyment while maintaining the natural setting that provides this outdoor experience.”

In sum, we agree. In fact, for a variety of good reasons, the scope of the McEuen proposal should stop at the base of Tubbs Hill.

1. Visual integrity — A major concern is that the proposal sacrifices the visual integrity of the beautiful green backdrop that Tubbs Hill gives to McEuen Park. The proposed improvements would be visible from McEuen and the rest of the City of Coeur d’Alene, and would scar the otherwise natural forested hillside. The natural character of the McEuen-facing hillside should remain undisturbed to the extent possible.

2. Construction impacts and permanent disturbance — The construction impacts and disturbance created by opening the forest canopy for the proposed features are likely to invite more difficulty with invasive species. Moreover, the necessity for grading and heavier equipment for construction will likely have impacts on the stormwater, erosion and will likely boost nutrient inputs to the Lake. Such hillside development would be legally and environmentally problematic for a private developer on private property. Such development should not be excused and allowed to occur on City lands.

3. Sledding Hill — We are concerned that the clearance of trees for construction of a sledding hill in the winter months would leave a permanent scar on the hillside in non-winter months. There are better and more organic locations for sledding than Tubbs Hill.

4. Faux features — The Team McEuen proposal makes the unfortunate choice to suggest manmade waterfalls and gardens to greet Tubbs Hill visitors at the trailheads. Indeed, such a design decision misses the fundamental reasoning behind the fierce protection of Tubbs Hill as a natural area. Manmade aesthetic enhancement is simply unnecessary on Tubbs Hill.

5. Accessibility –We appreciate the desire to make the Tubbs Hill experience accessible to people of all abilities, but such accessibility should probably be part of an overall strategy for Tubbs Hill, not McEuen Park. The ADA requires very specific accessibility design and performance standards for new and substantially improved trails, specifying such things as the trail’s width, slope, surface, headroom, passing room, and obstructions. Such standards will be expensive and difficult to implement on Tubbs Hill without significant construction activity and harm to the visual experience. There is an exemption to the accessibility guidelines only if compliance would “cause substantial harm to cultural, historic, religious, or significant natural features or characteristics.” Arguably such an exception exists in this instance. However, we suggest that Tubbs Hill accessibility is a problem separate and apart from McEuen Park, and should be considered in a different planning process.

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