The trees in Orpheus Park in Leucadia have almost all been cut down — they are the disappeared. Save one. And a bird by the name of Andrew “Jru” Watkins is sitting in a nest of sorts, preserving the last tree doomed for execution. The “bird” in the tree has captured the news headlines, but the real story is below and not with this symbol of peaceful demonstration.
The real story is about the government of Encinitas run amuck, about the absence of following established process, and running roughshod over citizens’ rights and opportunity for public hearing. It is about the staff overstepping its boundaries and making a bad decision and trying to cover its backside. And perhaps it is even a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.
Mistrust in government only increases when arbitrary decisions are made behind closed doors and the decision is announced only on a sign in the park, with no input from the citizens. The only council member who has shown courage, clarity and awareness of the true nature of the council’s responsibility versus the role of staff members is Teresa Barth. She gets it.
The blame game: In November 2008, Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan met with a few of the condo owners at the Coast Point Condo complex north of Orpheus Park who expressed concern that the trees were obstructing clear ocean views. Chris Hazeltine, Parks and Recreation director, was also at this meeting. Ms. Houlihan reported that her understanding at the end of this discussion was that the trees were going to be trimmed and shaped. The president of the Condo Owners Association, Betty Weber, is quoted as saying: “I thought they were only going to trim the trees.”
The condo owners said they were given an oral promise that their views would be protected and preserved by former Parks and Recreation Director David Wigginton. Chris Hazeltine and City Manager Phil Cotton used this as an excuse to cut down the 11 trees in the park and chipper them away into nothingness. As Teresa Barth pointed out correctly, we have no view protection ordinance in this city. No promises could be made to protect ocean views.
I contacted David Wigginton by phone. He was shocked to learn that the trees had been cut down. He made it clear that he told the condo owners that he would “maintain the trees and keep them trimmed, which is the job of the Parks and Recreation Department.” He stated he “would never cut down the trees nor ever promise to do so. I planted those trees.” In fact, this writer was alongside David planting those trees with then-Councilman Chuck DuVivier and several volunteers on the Plant-It 2000 project in 1993.
The latest footnote here is that after the fact, staff was scurrying around to check for any piece of paper to justify their actions. They found an attachment of a Planning Commission meeting dated Dec. 13, 1990, that states: “All landscaping will be “maintained” in a manner that will not deprecate adjoining property values and otherwise adversely affect adjacent properties.” “Maintained” is the key word here — nothing says chop down trees.
The comments apply to all surrounding properties, not exclusive to the condo complex. So why is the city planting magnolia trees (of all things) on the shady south side of the park which will block adjoining property views? The city staff has taken out these beautiful healthy, albeit nonnative, trees to replace them with 22 ugly nonnative trees. Does this make sense?
Every park in the city goes through a process. Council directs staff to begin the process of a Park Master Plan, which goes through scrutiny by the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Planning Commission and City Council — all with public notice and input. It is at all times within the purview of City Council and commission representatives for action and direction to staff. Every detail is covered, even where and what kind of trees will be planted. To change any part of this Master Plan requires the review of City Council and a public hearing — not arbitrary decisions by staff. By eliminating these trees the staff has brought about a substantial change in use — which may be a violation of CEQA law.
I started this column by saying the city of Encinitas has run amuck. The problem stems from the fact that the Parks and Recreation Department stopped trimming the trees a year ago. As one condo owner put it: “The city up until last year had kept the trees trimmed below the ocean view and everything was fine. Then the Parks and Rec. guy said they were not going to trim them anymore — and didn’t.” It appears that the city staff may have deliberately manipulated the requests of the condo owners into an excuse to take down the trees — even those not blocking any views! The city then plants new trees that don’t have to be trimmed for years — now they don’t have to be bothered with calls from citizens asking to have the trees trimmed. They don’t have to do their job. Is this a deliberate dereliction of duty? Chris Hazeltine and City Manager Phil Cotton need to answer: Who gave the OK for this decision?
Save the last tree the city staff wants to cut down. It doesn’t block anyone’s view! Go to the park and sign the petition. Express your concerns at the Feb. 11 City Council meeting at 6 p.m.
Sheila S. Cameron is former Encinitas Mayor.