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Willits finally getting freeway bypass but isn't sure it still wants it

50+ years on, Willits, Calif., is getting its bypass. But with wetlands to be drained for the project, opposition has arisen.

August 24, 2013|By Lee Romney
  • A bicycle rider makes his way on Main Street -- US Highway 101 -- through the town of Willits, in Mendocino County, where a four-lane freeway bypass is being built, requiring wetlands drainage.
A bicycle rider makes his way on Main Street -- US Highway 101 -- through the… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

WILLITS, Calif. — The project was proudly unveiled in this Mendocino County lumber town in the mid-1950s, when the car was king and the future looked bright.

Instead of channeling Highway 101 traffic right down Main Street, a four-lane bypass dubbed the Willits Freeway would route vacationing motorists and commercial trucks around the community's periphery.

Then came delays, and more delays. Ukiah got its bypass in the 1960s, Cloverdale two decades later.

Now, at last, it's Willits' turn. Tens of thousands of corrugated plastic wick drains have been plunged deep into the Little Lake Valley to compact its wetlands. The roadway's foundation piles are being driven.

But this is not the same Willits — or the same era.

Back-to-the-landers with visions of sustainability and an aversion to greenhouse gases have flocked here as the Willits born-and-bred have moved on. Only one small lumber mill remains, and the town's population has dwindled.

Opponents have decried the environmental destruction, contending that a two-lane bypass would have been far less damaging and should have been considered. They have conducted studies that indicate the project's traffic-carrying capabilities far exceed expected volumes, and last year filed a federal suit citing violations of the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act — laws not even conceived of in the 1950s.

Desperate to slow the project that broke ground in February, conservationists have teamed with more radical activists from the Little Lake Valley Defenders and Redwood Nation Earth First!, who have chained themselves to the massive wick drain stitchers — the soaring steel equipment driving the drains into wet soil — and staged sit-ins up in the trees.

The project to drain the wetlands and construct the bypass is dividing this town, which tends to rank its populace of about 5,000 by the depth of their roots here: old-timers, newer old-timers, newcomers.

"It hurts to look at this," Ellen Drell, who sits on the board of the Willits Environmental Center, said as she surveyed a graded expanse of dirt that until recently was pasture dotted with ancient oaks. "It hurts because my town, where I've lived my entire adult life, wasn't willing to be part of a better solution.

"What are we, in Willits, doing in 2013?" she asked, close to tears. "We're building a four-lane freeway that's not needed, and for no reason we're sucking a wetland dry. The irrationality of it is just crushing."

Yet plenty of residents are fed up with the protests, saying the project at last will relieve Main Street's traffic jams while modernizing infrastructure for countless Californians who don't wish to stop in town at all.

"It's about inter-regional transportation. It's about the functioning of a major state highway," said Jeanne King, a retired schoolteacher and 30-year resident. "I don't consider myself a bypass proponent, I consider myself a bypass acceptor. Many people accept that the bypass is here after years and years of talk. This bypass, not some other bypass, not some better bypass."

Caltrans district spokesman Phil Frisbie said the agency followed regulations in winning approval for the project, agreeing to a massive mitigation plan to enhance nearly 2,000 acres of the watershed in exchange for compacting 60 acres.

The agency will install fencing to keep livestock out of streambeds — which will improve water quality — and replace three culverts on three streams meant to open up new spawning grounds.

"We compromised," he said.

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With a folksy archway proclaiming itself the "Gateway to the Redwoods," Willits presents the biggest speed bump for Highway 101 traffic between Eureka and Santa Rosa. During rush hour and on holidays, particularly when music festivals are scheduled to the north, traffic can back up for miles.

"I've seen fistfights. I've seen accidents," said Denny McEntire, a former councilman who in 1945 arrived in Willits as a 6-month-old and grew up hanging around his father's soda fountain.

Since the bypass project was revived in earnest, most here agree, the message has been four lanes or nothing.

The Mendocino Council of Governments — which doles out state and federal transportation funds to the Caltrans district, the county and its four incorporated cities — pushed for unanimous support from local elected officials. Without it, the group's executive director warned, the California Transportation Commission probably would hand its dollars over to more powerful places, like Los Angeles.

"They felt if there wasn't total commitment, there wasn't much chance of getting the money," said McEntire, who served on the council's board.

As a result, more than $33 million — the vast majority of the state transportation funds that have flowed to the county over the last two decades — was squirreled away for the bypass, which has an expected $210-million price tag.

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