BY DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
County officials, stung by criticism over their plans to replace a historic steel truss bridge near Sonoma, are now proposing to keep the bridge and build a new one downstream.
But the revised plans for Watmaugh Road Bridge aren’t receiving a better reception. The plans would require the county to acquire private property adjacent to Sonoma Creek in order to redirect the road leading to the new span.
“I’m stunned that this is the solution, and I would put the word solution in quotes,” said Nancy Simpson, Sonoma Valley’s designate to the county Landmarks Commission.
The Watmaugh bridge was constructed in 1929 to span the creek and connect what is today Arnold Drive and Highway 12 leading into Sonoma. The bridge is one of two steel truss bridges in Sonoma Valley and in 1981 was designated as a county historic landmark after preservationists saved it from being torn down.
County officials say the bridge is at risk of collapse during an earthquake or major flood because of erosion around the piers that support it. But preservationists contend that officials are inflating the risks and that the span can be brought to safety standards without having to replace it.
Passions already were inflamed over the bridge’s fate prior to the county announcing the revised plans in an e-mail circulated this week to preservationists and Sonoma city councilmembers.
Sonoma Valley Supervisor Valerie Brown and Simpson, whom Brown appointed to the Landmarks Commission, are at odds over the issue, with Brown favoring the county’s original plan that called for replacing the bridge while preserving the trusses.
Simpson advocates for the bridge to be retro-fitted.
“I recognize what Ms. Simpson wants and I can’t seem to, with every fact, move her off of that. The reality is we cannot do what she wants us to do,” Brown said.
But Brown shares Simpson’s concerns about building an entirely new bridge, particularly the impact that would have on property owners whose land would have to be acquired in order to redirect Watmaugh Road.
“I’m just a little bit sorry that we are having to look at putting in a new bridge next to an existing bridge that we could make usable,” Brown said Friday.
County transit planners said it would cost as much to retrofit the bridge as it would to replace it, and that the funds that are available to do the work are tied specifically to building a new span.
Tom O’Kane, the county deputy director of public works, said building a new bridge would not increase the cost to replace it, as he said the money would be saved by not have to demolish the existing span. Officials have pegged the cost of replacing the bridge at between $2 million and $3 million.
O’Kane said the vocal opposition and “saber-rattling about lawsuits” prompted officials to devise what he considers a compromise plan for the bridge.
But Simpson accused county officials of trying to “make a museum” out of the bridge.
The Landmarks Commission has the authority to review changes to the bridge under a 1998 Board of Supervisors resolution that designated Watmaugh and 11 other bridges part of a county-wide historic bridges district.
The county’s plans to build a new Watmaugh bridge would appear to circumvent that process. But O’Kane denied any deliberate attempt to get around the commission, even as he again accused preservationists of “grasping at straws” and putting out “disinformation.”
The county will present the revised plans informally at the commission’s June 7 meeting.
O’Kane said county planners have not done anything beyond map out the proposed location of the new bridge, which would be about 15 to 20 feet south of the existing span.
In order to realign Watmaugh Road, the county would have to encroach on property owned by a member of the Sangiacomo wine family and by Ken Niles, who owns the Marketplace shopping center in Sonoma.
Niles owns a historic home on Watmaugh Road near the current bridge but O’Kane said no structures would be affected by the road change.
O’Kane said the county would move toward acquiring the property through the condemnation process if purchase agreements can’t be reached.
“I hate to do that, but that’s what we do,” O’Kane said.
A call to the Sangiacomos was not returned Friday and Niles could not be reached.