Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"What we ought to do is get off our duffs, take the $10,000, and replace the trees ourselves."

Future of Freeport's historic Victory Trees uncertain in face of disease, development

Sacramento Bee, by Tony Bizjak, 2/21/12

In tiny Freeport, folks are aiming harsh words at the city of Sacramento, including this one: unpatriotic.

They say their northern neighbor is reneging on its promise to care for a historic avenue of ancient elms on Freeport Boulevard known as the Victory Trees. The once-elegant elm canopy has thinned at a rapid pace in the past decade.

Local legend says the trees were planted in the 1920s to honor the 131 Sacramento County soldiers who died in World War I. News clippings from that era indicate soldiers may have brought the seeds home from European battlefields.

Freeport Boulevard, at the time, was designated a part of the nation's Victory Highway, a cross-country combination of new and existing roads that served as both war memorial and public improvement project.

Jerry McFetridge lives in Clarksburg, just across the Sacramento River from Freeport. He gets riled up whenever he drives the section of Freeport Boulevard south of Meadowview Road, where elms once formed a leafy tunnel for drivers entering Freeport, a town with just a few dozen residents.

"It's a disgrace," he said, "not only because they are a living memorial to fallen servicemen, but they also made for one of the nicest sections of road in the whole region."

The city took control of this part of state Highway 160 in 2001. In doing so, it signed a covenant with the state agreeing to preserve the Victory Trees.

"The covenant shall be a binding servitude upon the Victory Trees and shall be deemed to run with the land," states the hand-over document from the Department of Transportation to the city.

Today, just a few elms stand sentinel between Sacramento and Freeport. Just south of Freeport, though, soldierly rows of trees still flank the river highway near Bartley Cavanaugh Golf Course for a few hundred yards, offering a glimpse of what once was.

City officials acknowledge that they have been cutting down the trees. But they are not the culprits, they say. City urban forest services manager Joe Benassini said the city's hand was forced by Dutch elm disease, a scourge that began sweeping through many of the region's elms in 1990.

Benassini and others looked into replacing the elms a few years ago but decided that underground utilities, irrigation, levee requirements and property issues were too complicated.

"There simply wasn't room," he said.

At the urging of Freeport activist Carol Rakela and others, the city planted trees in an adjacent park.

Rakela and others in Freeport, however, say they aren't buying the city's contention that new Victory Trees can't be planted. Some say they suspect the city just doesn't want roadside trees to get in the way of upcoming urban growth.

A narrow majority of Freeport residents – determined to preserve their rural identity – voted 24-20 several years ago to reject annexation overtures from the city. But it appears that they're about to be swallowed up by development anyway.

The city of Sacramento and a developer, M&H Realty Partners, plan to build an interchange on Interstate 5 next to Freeport starting later this year. The project will include a four-lane road between the freeway and Freeport Boulevard on the town's north flank.

This interchange will accommodate a planned 800- acre retail and housing project called Delta Shores. Suburban homes will shoulder up to Freeport backyards, erasing the last fragments of open land separating Freeport from Sacramento. Some in Freeport fought unsuccessfully for a buffer.

"It's a done deal," said Tracy Oto, who runs an auto repair shop in Freeport. "Not much we can do about it."

He is displeased, however, that one small concession has yet to be fulfilled. The Delta Shores developer agreed in 2010 to donate $10,000 to restore lost Victory Trees or replant trees in an alternate spot chosen by the Freeport Preservation Coalition.

The Sacramento Tree Foundation was asked to handle the task but backed away after it talked with city officials. The money remains unspent.

While the Victory Trees' demise is becoming well chronicled, their beginning remains obscure. A recent report from Caltrans says the trees were planted "at the height of the Sacramento City Beautification movement of the 1920s," but it does not say by whom.

The planter could have been the city, veterans groups or an influential women's association. Newspaper clippings indicate veterans at that time were distributing seeds, said to be from Europe's battlefields, for planting throughout the city.

In 1930, veterans and the city planted a Memorial Grove in Land Park. Four years earlier, the Women's Council of Sacramento erected a war monument facing Freeport Boulevard in Land Park.

Standing this week next to one of the remaining Victory elms, McFetridge said the city needs to make good. He pointed to the nearby city water tower, proclaiming Sacramento to be "The City of Trees." Then he had another thought.

"What we ought to do is get off our duffs," he said, "take the $10,000, and replace the trees ourselves."

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