Was it a misunderstanding or a premeditated assault on a sensitive tribal archaeological site, currently the property of the city? That's the question Trinidad is asking itself as the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office investigates whether Sam Pennisi, a member of the Trinidad Planning Commission and a former Arcata City Councilmember, hired a landscaping service to wipe out a wide swath of bluffside forest to improve his own home's million-dollar ocean views.
In mid-June, a professional tree-trimmer moved heavy equipment down Trinidad's pedestrian-only Wagner Street Trail -- long a locus of dispute between homeowners, the city and the descendants of the Yurok village of Tsurai -- and spent a day and a half clearing brush and removing clumps mature trees rooted to an unstable bluff above Indian Beach. The area of the work was directly beneath the Pennisi home, and within the zone of the Tsurai village, the historic Yurok settlement and the site of first contact between the indigenous people of Humboldt County and Europeans.
One thing is certain: Laws were broken. "The vegetation that was cut was on city property," said Trinidad Mayor Stan Binnie Monday. "The city didn't do it. Whoever did it, it was done illegally."
Reached at her home Friday afternoon, Sharon Pennisi told the Journal only that she could not speak about the matter. However, in Sunday's Times-Standard, she did not deny that her family had hired the tree firm that performed the rogue work. She said that the cutting that was performed was "a big misunderstanding" and that her family was "very, very, very sorry."
But a June 19 memo from Trinidad City Manager Steve Albright to City Attorney Paul Hagen and Trinidad Mayor Stan Binnie, which was obtained by area resident Cindy Lindgren and passed on to the Journal, seems to contradict that claim. In it, Albright reports that earlier in the month, on June 9 or 10, a different tree trimming firm -- later identified as Professional Tree Services, of Blue Lake -- had come into City Hall asking about an apparently similar scope of work. The tree trimmer spoke to City Clerk Gabe Adams, according to the memo.
"Gabe cautioned him not to trim anywhere on the Wagner Street Trail or on the ocean side of the trail because it is city property," according to Albright. Professional Tree Services' Rocky Dorvall could not be reached by press time, but he apparently abandoned the job.
On June 11, Albright continued, Sam Pennisi came into City Hall "very angry" about the fact that the city had not controlled the vegetation on the slope, which he claimed was blocking his view of Trinidad Bay. Five days later, on June 16, another company -- this time it was Coastal Tree Service of McKinleyville -- commenced work on the project. The company worked all that day and part of the next before Albright learned of the project and shut it down.
As evidenced by the scarring on the landscape, none of the work performed by Coastal Tree Service seems to have taken place on the Pennisi property. All of it took place either on the Wagner Street Trail, where trees had been limbed to allow for the entry of motorized vehicles, or on the city property beneath the trail and the Pennisi home.
Reached Tuesday, Albright told the Journal that the city was currently awaiting the results of the Sheriff Office's investigation before it took further action, with one exception: It has contacted the local engineering firm Laco Associates to study what it would take to revegetate the fragile bluff system before this winter's storms hit.
Erosion of the bluffs, which lie between Trinidad's Wagner Street and the beaches below, is only one of the factors addressed in the Tsurai Management Plan, a document prepared by a commission that included the city, the Yurok Tribe, the Tsurai Ancestral Society and the California Coastal Conservancy, which holds an easement on the property. The plan, which was published in 2007 after years of negotiations, calls for the eventual transfer of the 12.5 acres surrounding the ancient village of Tsurai to the Yurok Tribe.
Last week, however, the Tsurai Ancenstral Society, convening an emergency meeting following the discovery of the recent illegal cutting, decided to turn its focus away from working toward the transfer of the site to the Yurok Tribe; rather, it would press for the repair of land damaged by the cut.
Last Friday afternoon, two members of the Tsurai Ancestral Society -- Joe Lindgren (Cindy's husband) and his older brother Axel -- walked along the Wagner Street Trail, observing the damage. They pointed out damage to the trail, to the no-vehicles warning sign that had been removed and especially to the place where a stand of mature trees once stood. The whole of the spot was barred by temporary cyclone fencing and yellow crime scene tape. Directly above it stood the Pennisi home, with its stunning view of Trinidad Bay.
The Lindgrens spoke of the decades their family has spent trying to gain protection for the location, which was once the site of Tsurai village -- the main Yurok town in the immediate area for centuries preceding contact with Europeans. The site includes burial grounds where generations of Tsurai people were laid to rest. As he told of the efforts to protect Tsurai, Axel Lindgren pointed at stumps sticking out of the bluffs, the remnants of trees that had evidently been hacked down years earlier.
"It's just the same old story, different year," Axel Lindgren said. "They need to start prosecuting."
Sheriff's Office Spokesperson Brenda Godsey said Tuesday that its office's investigation had not yet been completed. When it is complete, she said, her office will pass the results on to the District Attorney's Office for possible prosecution.