By Tanya Mannes
Encinitas, CA (February 22, 2009)- The buzz of a chain saw ripping through wood could be the most hated sound in tree-loving Encinitas. After all, this is the city whose very name means “little oaks” in Spanish. When the city eyes a dying tree for removal, residents regularly demand second and third opinions from arborists. They hire plant-nutrition specialists who painstakingly apply worm castings and loosen soil around the roots of trees on public property. If those treatments don’t work, residents have been known to hold candlelight vigils to say goodbye before the ax falls.
It was hardly surprising that people complained when the city began cutting down 11 shade trees in Orpheus Park last month, not because the trees were diseased but because they blocked neighbors’ views. Even though the city promised to replace the 11 trees with 22 planted on the park perimeter, that didn’t mollify people outraged that healthy trees were felled. Children and adults protested, a petition was delivered to City Hall, and an activist lived in one tree for 10 days to try to save it. In the end, the city chopped down the Tipuana tipu after he left.
The Orpheus Park controversy has focused public attention on the city’s approach to caring for its trees and the limited role the public plays in deciding their fate. Responsibility for overseeing the city’s tree stock is spread among three departments: Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and Engineering. All work is outsourced to West Coast Arborists, for about $243,000 a year.
On March 11, the City Council will consider adopting a comprehensive tree policy to guide the planting, maintenance and removal of trees on city land. Mayor Maggie Houlihan has pushed for a policy since being elected in 2000. The policy would “codify how important trees are and focus on the need for community involvement in anything other than routine maintenance,” she said.
Encinitas has about 15,700 trees on city land, the most common species being queen palm, Mexican fan palm, king palm, California pepper and California sycamore. The city’s best-known trees are the eucalyptuses planted in Leucadia in the late 1800s by the area’s founders, a group of English spiritualists.
Rachelle Collier, president of the Leucadia town council, said trees give Encinitas “that old beach feeling that we’ve lost in areas like Carlsbad and Oceanside. I think people like the idea that Encinitas is different because we have more trees,” she said. “It drew us here. There was more space, more trees.”
Collier said the trees lining Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia are especially important. “There is something spiritual about Leucadia, and I think part of the spirituality is the trees,” she said. The policy would apply to trees along roads, near city buildings and at parks and beaches.
It would require community notification of pending removals, and replanting when appropriate. New trees would have to be native species. The council could designate certain trees as “heritage trees” with special protections. The policy also would codify how city trees that damage sidewalks and roads would be handled. The proposed policy doesn’t address the thorny issue of trees that block views, as in Orpheus Park. It states only that “community needs… and aesthetic considerations” would be factors in managing tree canopies.
The Public Works Department and an Environmental Advisory Committee have been working on the policy since September. “It’s something that I’ve long thought we needed,” Houlihan said. “If we have a particularly popular tree that needs to be looked at, we need to have policies so that everybody gets the information they need.”
Councilwoman Teresa Barth, a critic of the Orpheus Park tree removal, said she supports a tree policy because “there’s definitely a need for consistency.” Public Works Director Larry Watt said, “The (proposed) policy recognizes that the urban forest is an integral part of the city’s infrastructure, just like traffic signs and streetlights, and that the trees have significant social, economic and ecological benefits to the city.”
Encinitas hasn’t had a standard procedure for notifying the public when a tree is to be cut down, other than posting a flier on the trunk. That concerns Leucadia residents, who were dismayed to see notices on several century-old eucalyptus trees along North Coast Highway 101 recently.
Next month, the city plans to remove 11 of the trees that have been deemed dead or in danger of falling. Kevin Cummins, vice president of the Encinitas Taxpayers Association, said the city didn’t explain whether other options were considered. “What I see here is a classic scenario where they don’t have any written policy to guide their staff, so they’re sort of making things up as they go along,” Cummins said. He said that a tree policy could help if it’s not vague and open to interpretation. “It might leave the same holes open,” Cummins said.
Watt said that while public notice isn’t required, he did inform a community group about the pending tree removals. At the request of Leucadia 101 Main Street, an association of businesses and property owners, he hired an arborist to evaluate the trees.
“Trees are an emotional issue with people, and we understand that,” Watt said. Councilmen Jerome Stocks and Dan Dalager caution that the community’s attachment to a tree should be secondary to the city’s liability if someone is injured by a falling limb. “As a council member and trustee of the public interest, I cannot take that kind of risk with public money or with the life or health of members of the public,” Stocks said.
During the past two years, Encinitas spent about $50,000 to settle nine claims against the city related to trees falling on vehicles, awnings and a fence. No one was injured. Of the claims, five stemmed from a March 27, 2007, incident in which a massive eucalyptus uprooted and fell on vehicles in the parking lot of Hansen’s Surf Shop in downtown Encinitas.
In most cases, the tree policy wouldn’t apply to private property owners or government agencies. San Diego Gas & Electric Co. is responsible for trimming trees around its power lines. Regardless of who owns the trees, the loss of a majestic specimen is mourned. In 2007, someone erected a memorial where a towering Torrey pine on private property was removed. That same year, 60 residents held a candlelight farewell to two diseased Monterey cypresses felled in Leucadia Roadside Park.
Government agencies take different approaches to tree management.
The San Diego County Library bent over backward to appease residents who objected to a 2007 plan to cut down three diseased Torrey pine trees at its Cardiff library branch. The county spent $10,000 on arborists and worm-casting treatments before declaring that they were dead. The trees were removed last month.
In contrast, despite community requests, the North County Transit District swiftly removed 10 trees along the railroad line in Leucadia that were deemed in danger of falling on the rail line.
Encinitas’ tree policy, as proposed, doesn’t specify watering or mulching procedures, or how to determine when a tree should be removed. If it’s adopted, City Manager Phil Cotton will be responsible for creating a manual of procedures to implement it. Encinitas arborist Mark Wisniewski, a member of the Environmental Advisory Committee, said the management plan is an important step. “You can have it written down on paper, but unless someone is charged with implementing it and following through on it, things don’t change,” Wisniewski said.
San Diego Union Tribune- New Proposed Tree Policy Lets the Public Have Greater Say