Commission Lays Roots for Tree Canopy Policy

By Anita Varghese
Santa Monica, CA (September 6, 2007)- A long-delayed policy to save trees on private land may finally bear fruit after the Santa Monica Planning Commission recommended Wednesday that the City Council review a range of possible conservation strategies. The strategies include incentives for planting new trees, disincentives for removing mature trees and a $5,000 fine for removing trees on private property without a permit- the same fine as for removing a public tree.


“We will recommend to the City Council that we should have a comprehensive private tree canopy policy focused on preserving trees,” said Commissioner Julia Lopez Dad. “We have to limit the loss of trees that seems to going ever faster. “What we should be trying to do is retain the canopy we have and add to it,” Lopez Dad said.
Wednesday’s action comes eight years after the council adopted a Community Forest Management Plan in 1999 with policies focused on capturing the benefits provided by the approximately 34,000 public trees in Santa Monica.
Staff has now researched a range of strategies to promote the conservation of the tree canopy provided by private trees in order to achieve environmental and aesthetic benefits. The objective of the City’s current policy is to nurture, conserve and enhance public and private tree canopies in Santa Monica that provide a variety of community-wide benefits.
Benefits include reducing the heat island effect, the runoff effect of rainfall and the use of water for landscapes, as well as offsetting carbon dioxide emissions, absorbing particulate matter from the air and generally beautifying and greening neighborhoods.
“Fifty years ago, the City was not worried about what the ficus trees were going to do in their mature state,” said Community Forester Walter Warriner. “Our modern urban forestry practice is to figure out how big a tree will get. So sometimes, native trees are not appropriate. It is not appropriate to put a California sycamore in a three-foot wide parkway nor is it appropriate to put an oak tree in.”
Under current planning policies and procedures, development project applicants are required to include a site survey when applying for ministerial or discretionary project approvals — a survey that must identify all existing trees on the project site.
In the case of discretionary projects, planning staff provides the Planning Commission and the Architectural Review Board with information regarding the existing location and types of mature trees on a proposed developed site. In the case of ministerial projects, this information is provided to ensure that new construction does not damage trees that are to be retained. Currently there are no regulations governing the removal of trees on private property, except for a landmarks ordinance.
On occasion, the Planning Commission and ARB take into account existing private trees that will be retained when land use issues are assessed. The board members take into account whether the trees provide a screen or buffer, add privacy and are compatible with adjacent sites and neighborhoods.
In most instances however, existing trees are removed as part of the development process, regardless of whether a tree is significant in size or species or provides environmental and aesthetic benefits, with conditions imposed on the number and size of replacement trees.
A landscape design, which includes new trees, is considered during the review process. However, there are currently no requirements that regulate the replacement of any canopy that is lost during development. “We see so much bamboo and mimosa in every landscape plan that comes by us because they are tall enough to block one building from another,” said Commissioner Jay Johnson. “We wind up with basically no meaningful trees, let alone a canopy.”
Planning regulations require that a minimum of one tree be provided for every 1,200 square feet of pavement accommodating vehicle traffic. The landscaped areas for parking lots consist of islands, peninsulas or medians distributed throughout the paved area and are in addition to the landscaped area required for building sites.
In multifamily residential districts, new development projects are required to provide two canopy trees in the unexcavated front yard setback and three canopy trees in the unexcavated side yard setback.
As part of the current private development review process, Warriner reviews plans to determine the impact of the proposed project on existing street trees. Typically, this process involves a site inspection by staff to verify site conditions as they are shown on the plans and to determine the existence or value of any significant trees on private property.
Based on the results of the site inspection, a recommendation is made to preserve significant private trees where applicable. However, the decision to retain a tree is ultimately left to the property owner.
On larger sites where a significant number of private trees are being targeted for removal, Warriner requests that the applicant submit an arborist’s report indicating which trees are worth retaining and which trees should be removed. That report is then compared to the subsequent landscape plan to verify that there will be an equal canopy replacement. Warriner has conducted three separate surveys of private tree policies in 35 California cities and seven cities outside of California.
The focus of the various ordinances and policies is to retain the general canopy, protect historically significant trees or trees of a certain size or species, maintaining the aesthetic value of a particular district, and protecting trees during construction.
The majority of the 42 cities surveyed have tree policies that are tied to development and emphasize retaining existing canopies. While some communities loosely regulate their canopies, those with a long history of tree conservation provide strict enforcement. They include Calabasas, San Marino, Palo Alto, Manhattan Beach and Thousand Oaks.
Officials from responding cities indicated that the most effective way to preserve tree canopies is by educating the public and providing flexible tools throughout the plan check and site inspection process. One tool officials in other cities use is a tree replacement ratio required as a condition of approval where a development project results in canopy loss.
“In developing a private tree canopy conservation policy for Santa Monica, consideration should be given to a proactive, flexible approach that promotes tree stewardship throughout the community and encourages creative design solutions when construction may threaten existing trees,” Warriner said.
“A final policy and implementation plan should have the commitment of the City, residents, business owners, developers and designers to work together to achieve an overall city tree canopy that contributes to quality of life and well-being in the community.”
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