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[whitespace] Group and county cut a deal on spraying mountain roads

Los Gatos--After almost a year of negotiating, a group that took on the county over an herbicide used on mountain roads has settled for a compromise.

Residents who live in unincorporated mountain areas formed GATOS, or Group Against Toxic Spraying, last April and pressured the county to stop using the herbicide Garlon 4 to control roadside weeds. The group maintains that the herbicide is a threat to drinking water, which some residents get from springs and wells, and to Lexington Reservoir.

Although GATOS wanted a total ban on spraying, the group settled for a 95-percent reduction. The county agreed to use the herbicide only on invasive, non-native plants like scotch broom and star thistle.

"It's tremendous progress for the amount of time we worked on it," said Joan Anderson, the Black Road resident who started the group of about 40 residents.

The deal gives residents the opportunity to cut their own frontage by signing a waiver and putting red stakes in front of their property. GATOS plans to send out 2,262 waivers this week to residents along 40 miles of county roads.

Bill Green, the group's spokesman, says they accepted the proposal because it called for using the lowest possible concentration, or about one quart per acre, and because the county crews will be specially trained in its use.

"We're happy because we feel like we've come a long way, but our goal is still no spraying," Green said.

Alan Jones, branch manager for the Roads and Airports Department says the deal appears to be the best solution for both sides, but will be evaluated at the end of the year.

If both sides hadn't reached an agreement, the county Board of Supervisors would have voted on a solution. In January, it seemed all bets were off when the group rejected the county's proposal to cut spraying by 50 percent.

The county switched from a combination of mowing and spraying to spraying only in the spring of 1997 to eliminate weeds that cut visibility for motorists and pose a fire hazard. Green says that the mountain residents agree with the need for better visibility and fire safety.

When the next year rolled around, residents found out the county was coming back, and insisted on cutting their own frontages. And they did just that, with a team of 21 volunteers heading out with their own weed-whackers and pickup trucks. County crews still sprayed, though, and the residents formally protested to their county supervisor, Don Gage.

Gage's office met with the group over the last year and, along with county Roads and Airports staff, worked out the deal.

County officials maintained that the chemical was specific to only a few kinds of plants and would not contaminate drinking water.

Asked if Garlon 4 is safe, Jones says, "We only spray chemicals that are EPA-approved; we only apply according to the labeled directions, and we only apply for the minimum level of control we're trying to achieve."

According to Jones, mowing costs from $15,000 to $17,000 per acre, while spraying costs about $170 per acre. Jones estimates there are about 80 acres of roadside in the Lexington basin.

Next fall, the county also plans to try out a new chemical which both sides agree is safe--Suppressa, a recently developed organic pre-emergent, that prevents seeds from sprouting. The product is an edible by-product of corn syrup.

GATOS and county staff are set to meet in June to discuss getting an item on the county budget that would fund a study of alternatives to spraying.

Residents on Old Santa Cruz Highway and Aldercroft Heights, Alma Bridge, Bear Creek, Black, Gist, Idylwild, Montevina, Mountain Charlie, Soda Springs, Thompson, Weaver and Wright's Station roads are affected by the new policy.

Mountain residents who received the waiver should return it promptly, the group says. Mailers were sent out March 17. Those who did not receive a waiver may call Angie Norquist at 354-1493.
Jeff Kearns

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Web extra to the March 25-31, 1999 issue of Metro.

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