Sharpening the ax: Folsom’s plan to chop down trees in nature park sparks ire

City Council to vote on $2.6 million sewer line proposal community members say is unnecessary

Left to right, Fred Kindel, Mike Stickley, Betsy Weiland, Roger Buthcer, Stacie Sherman and John Combs, members of the Hinkle Creek Working Group, are trying to save a nature area in Folsom from being turned into a road.

Left to right, Fred Kindel, Mike Stickley, Betsy Weiland, Roger Buthcer, Stacie Sherman and John Combs, members of the Hinkle Creek Working Group, are trying to save a nature area in Folsom from being turned into a road.

Photo by Kris Hooks

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.

Outdoor enthusiasts are fuming at Folsom again, this time over a plan to destroy nearly 80 trees in a wooded hideaway that offers a rare escape from the plaster deluge of suburbia.

City officials claim that tearing a 12-foot road across the Hinkle Creek Nature Area is necessary to maintain a sewer line for two dozen houses. A community group engaged in its own fact-finding mission calls that stance absurd and is offering an alternative plan it says costs less while avoiding hill terracing and tree destruction. Now, the group’s members are wondering if the Folsom City Council can be open-minded about independent research, or if it will fire up the chain saws based on its staff’s recommendations.

Given that four of those council members voted to allow developers to build future tract homes across 3,600 acres of open space—despite objections from leading environmental groups—some residents aren’t holding out much hope for Hinkle Creek’s tree line.

History itself has made Folsom leaders keenly aware of the need to monitor local sewage arteries. In January 2000, the city’s main sewage pump spilled 700,000 gallons of raw waste into the American River. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board leveled nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in fines at Folsom. Lately, the city’s gravity sewer pipeline in the Lower American River Canyon has been experiencing maintenance issues, including at least two sewage overflows near Hinkle Creek, a waterway that also flows into the American River. The pipe itself runs partly under the Hinkle Creek Nature Area, with a handful of manholes to access it scattered throughout the woods.

Folsom officials hired the Rancho Cordova-based firm Quincy Engineering to evaluate the situation. Quincy, in turn, recommended in 2015 that the city construct a roadway directly through the nature park, one wide enough for large-scale Vactor trucks—or pumping stations on wheels—to access the manholes in the forest. According to a report from the Folsom city arborist, the road will destroy or critically impact 77 trees, mostly live oaks, and affect the health of an additional 175 trees.

For Folsom resident Stacie Sherman, who’s worried about the future of Hinkle Creek, the stakes are even higher. Sherman told SN&R that her examination of Folsom’s arborist report suggests city officials aren’t counting gray pine trees in their damage assessment.

“Folsom’s tree policy doesn’t recognize the gray pine as being a valuable tree to the city,” Sherman said. “But gray pines are what the American bald eagle has been nesting in nearby at Lake Natoma. I think if you asked most people who live in Folsom if they like having gray pines and bald eagles, they’d say, ’Yes.’ But the city’s policy doesn’t support that.”

According to Folsom’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget, the cost of the road project would be $2,596,765.

Given the Hinkle Creek Nature Area’s popularity with runners, hikers and families, a group of Folsom residents, including Sherman, have been searching for an alternative way to protect the creek from sewer overflows without killing trees. Its members have now consulted a number of sewage professionals and generated a plan that employs industry-standard debris baskets and low-orbiting manhole cameras to fix pipe blockages that Vactor trucks can’t reach. Retired tech executive John Combs, an active leader in the group’s research, said this alternative would cost Folsom taxpayers only a small fraction of the $2.6 million proposal that kills trees. But, Combs added, city staff is still asking the council to vote on approval of its road. Officials have said the vote will be on June 13.

“We’ve vetted our proposal with experts and we know it can be done,” Combs stressed. “With the council getting closer to a vote, we can’t get any response back from the city. None at all.”

But the group has gotten plenty of response from residents. A petition it’s circulated has already grabbed more than 1,000 signatures to protect Hinkle Creek’s trees.

Folsom City Manager Evert Palmer didn’t return SN&R’s calls for comment by press time. But Palmer won’t have the final say. The Folsom City Council will.

Combs said that, so far, only Councilmen Roger Gaylord and Ernie Sheldon have met with his group, separately, to hear their concerns. Council members Kerri Howell, Andy Morin and Steve Miklos are transmitting the same level of radio silence as city staff. Howell, Morin and Miklos also voted to allow mass development in Folsom’s controversial “south of 50 project,” despite concerns from the Sacramento Environmental Council that papering hundreds of acres of open space with tract homes would affect the region’s smog, traffic, hawks and water supplies.

As City Hall’s silence on Hinkle Creek continues, a vote on the road gets closer, prompting greater concern for those who love the nature area.

“I’ve been absolutely stunned by how unresponsive the city is,” Combs said. “It’s been mind-numbing to me.”