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

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.

When it became clear the project was a go — at four lanes — in 2010, opponents were deflated. Still, it wasn't until construction was imminent that their movement gained steam.

A federal judge in San Francisco is expected to rule any day on the legal challenge, whose plaintiffs include the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club. One key claim: Caltrans intentionally excluded a two-lane option in its environmental review.

The Clean Water Act mandates that the least environmentally damaging of the options presented must be selected. "If a two-lane bypass had been in the mix," said the Willits Environmental Center's Richard Estabrook, the Army Corps of Engineers "would have had to choose it. It would have had the least impact."

Caltrans' own traffic data, Estabrook said, show a trend over the last two decades that is flat or declining.

But according to Frisbie, the Federal Highway Administration requires that such bypass projects meet Caltrans' local "purpose and need" document, which had targeted a level of service over a 20-year period that a two-lane bypass could not satisfy.

"Unfortunately, you jump from a two-lane to a four-lane," he said.

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Many business owners in Willits fear they will lose crucial tourist dollars once the bypass is opened. At the very least, they had hoped for more offramps. "Another Business for a Better Bypass," window posters read.

But Councilman Bruce Burton, a longtime bypass backer and second-generation native who owns that last mill in town, counters that getting rid of the traffic will bring benefits to downtown. Furthermore, without Caltrans as a Main Street landlord — it now has primary say in approving sidewalk business signage and issuing permits for festival street closures — the town at last will have total control.

"We can get rid of the stoplights, maybe, or put a little statue of the mayor there in a little roundabout," he said. "We can brand our town. We don't have to be a Caltrans highway anymore."

Yet protesters are committed. They have trespassed, ensconced themselves in trees and chained themselves to equipment in an attempt to delay the clearing of vegetation and the installation of 55,000 wick drains. Law enforcement costs have run above $1million.

For many in town, the tactics have been off-putting, causing the environmental center "to lose a lot of goodwill," King said.

But thanks to the attention generated by such direct action, two county supervisors and two council members have said it still may not be too late to push for a "better bypass."

So far, only the southbound lanes have been funded. They will be striped for two-way traffic while Caltrans seeks more financing. Councilwoman Madge Strong said she recently polled colleagues on a proposal to scale down the northern interchange in the hopes of keeping the project to two lanes — forever.

"Caltrans is building for the future with the idea that there are always going to be more people and more cars," said Strong, who with seven years in Willits is a relative newcomer. "Those assumptions are just not correct anymore. We just can't continue a growth mentality.... It's a new world."

lee.romney@latimes.com

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