ESCONDIDO — A walking tour resulted in a timeout for the controversial tree removal as part of the city’s improvement project to upgrade sidewalks in Old Escondido.
The issue blew up over the past week when residents discovered nearly three dozen trees had been removed as part of a $3.3 million project. The plan called for improvements to sidewalks and roads in the neighborhood.
On Tuesday, Mayor Sam Abed and council members Olga Diaz and Ed Gallo took part in a walking tour, along with about 50 residents, two city arborists and the assistant director of public works.
Diaz admitted the city did a “horrible” job of notifying the residents of the plan in a timely manner, but said the meeting went smoothly.
“We had two city arborists give explanations about why the trees had been tagged for replacement,” she said. “We should have made contact months in advance.”
The city will hold off on removing trees until an independent arborist delivers an assessment, although Diaz said other improvements would continue. For example, sidewalk corners will be replaced to add or improve wheelchair access.
She said the council and city was caught by surprise to the reaction, but stressed the intent was in good faith. Diaz said other options construction crews may consider are snaking paths, depending on the health of specific trees.
The decision by the council, which was made months ago, was to fund the project.
However, details of the project were left with city staff and contractors to determine the best and most efficient way forward, Diaz said.
“Engineers and contractors tend want to do things as quickly as possible for efficiency, not just financially,” she explained. “Some of the removal began without the residents being properly noticed. That is absolutely our shortcoming and I’m pretty sure it will never happen again.”
In addition, she said one of the city’s arborists pointed out the trimming of the trees through the years has hurt their health. Diaz said it may be prudent to include San Diego Gas & Electric in talks about trimming, since power lines must be protected and much of Old Escondido’s lines are not grounded.
“Sometime alternative methods are more appropriate,” Diaz said.
Residents, meanwhile, questioned the city’s motives and complained the removal of the trees will hurt the neighborhood’s appeal. In addition, the trees also provide shade to many homes.
During the tour, Diaz said the irony was not lost on city officials as at each stop, most of the people huddled in the shade.
Diaz said Julia Procopio, assistant director of Public Works, conducted the tour and answered every question. In addition, Diaz said the tone of the meeting was calm and respectful, although residents were upset about the lack of notice.
Some residents, though, questioned the claims of safety saying it was not an issue before the project began.
“Now, we go back and explain what we should have explained in the first place,” Diaz said. “Some of these trees have been there longer than the homes and longer than some of us have been on the planet.”