Carlotta resident George Warren glanced left and right then walked to the centerline of Highway 36 pulling a measuring tape gripped on the other end by resident A.J. Doudna. Doudna, standing in Albert and Yvette Mendes' front yard, backed up at Warren's direction until he was almost standing under the breezeway that connects the two main buildings of the Mendes' house. Warren, dashing back to the edge of the narrow, shoulderless highway to avoid getting hit by yet another speeding car, said that's the point where a combination of easements for right-of-way access and utilities and a county setback requirement would be expanded to if Caltrans went ahead with a planned shoulder-widening project in this tiny burg strung snugly along Highway 36. The easements would cut right through the middle of the Mendes' home.
Across the street, Warren pulled a similar stunt. This time, it was Doudna's turn to dance from centerline to edge of highway and back with measuring tape in hand, dodging cars. The speed limit was 45 through there, but most people seemed to be going faster and some were edging on careening insanity. Same story: This little white house with the red trim was going to be in the way of the planned new easements. There was even a right-of-way reference stake hammered into the front lawn next to a big redwood and the house's front porch, and another one on the other side of the lawn -- connect them, and you have a highway/utility easement running snug against the front porch steps and through the tree.
And there were other cases like this along the 1.7 mile stretch of highway through the small community of Carlotta where Caltrans plans to widen the shoulders. To the 11-foot lanes would be added five-foot paved shoulders attached to three-foot gravel sloping shoulders attached to dozens of feet in Caltrans and utility easements and county setbacks. Fences, trees, shrubs, possibly houses, maybe a well or two were in jeopardy. Warren said around 92 parcels, many occupied by elderly residents on fixed incomes, could be affected in one way or another.
"They're changing the whole fabric of Carlotta," said Warren. "And what they initially told us was they were only going to do four-foot shoulders."
At a meeting later that evening, Warren and Doudna were joined by several other residents, including the Mendeses. A group of sometimes up to 70 residents has been meeting since mid-July, ever since Caltrans crews came out and starting planting stakes in people's yards. They've been poring over documents from when the project was originally proposed, in 1998, and over subsequent environmental impact documents and informational fliers Caltrans put out. They've circulated a petition, pestered Caltrans and written letters to the editor -- all in a respectful tone, noted several at Monday's meeting.
Part of the problem, the group explained, is the process has been confusing and not very transparent. Caltrans didn't lie, but it wasn't expansive in its explanations. They said Caltrans' initial documents described the project in terms of feet and miles, and later ones switched to kilometers and meters. And, they said, there was never a formal hearing on the project, just informational meetings -- and the subject of multiple property-gobbling easements and setbacks wasn't exactly highlighted. Plus, they said they've asked Caltrans to deal with flooding issues, put in a school speed zone near the intersection with Wilder Road, and a slower speed through town in general -- to no avail.
The group also objects to Caltrans' couching the project as something that the residents of Carlotta and Cuddeback School staff asked for back in the early 1990s. In fact, just one resident wrote a letter, they said, asking for a wider shoulder on one side of the road for pedestrians and bicyclists. (Tuesday afternoon, Superintendent/Prinicipal Ronan Collver said that a previous principal did write a letter to Caltrans in 1993 expressing concern about the lack of shoulder around Wilder and the highway.) Also, they said, now Caltrans is calling the new shoulder a "vehicle recovery zone" -- not exactly the safe shoulder they envisioned to walk and bike on.
At Monday's meeting, Ryan Chairez said the project as planned doesn't help Carlotta.
"It doesn't join us to any common industry, or to any booming areas," he said. "And the fact that it was initiated by a person concerned about the safety of kids going to school, and it doesn't even incorporate a school speed zone and school crossing zone, doesn't make sense."
Caltrans project manager Richard Mullen said Monday morning that the project is on hold now so that his team can look into the residents' concerns.
"I understand where they're coming from," Mullen said. "It's a big impact to their community. We are taking a step back to see how we can minimize that, if at all."
Mullen said, however, that the community has to work with the California Highway Patrol and the county on speed limit issues and school crossing zones. And everyone would have to be involved in flood control.
"We, too, are very concerned about the drainage," he said. "We can't fix it ourselves. It needs to involve the property owners, the Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Game and County of Humboldt."
If the residents don't support the project in the end, some of them might refuse to sign agreements for the expanded easements. Instead, said Warren, they might force Caltrans to try to exercise eminent domain -- if the highway wants his land, he says, they can try to take it from him in court.