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Request to halt tree removal permits fails to take root

SOLANA BEACH — When it came to removing trees from public property, council decided at the Jan. 8 meeting not to go out on a limb and place a moratorium on issuing permits, a request from City Manager David Ott because the current code is outdated and ambiguous.

Council members opted instead to continue to allow trees to be cut down only if they are considered a public safety hazard or are interfering with a project.

The issue took root because the city recently received several requests from residents who want to remove trees in front of their homes that are in the public right of way.

The final decision on whether a tree can be removed falls on Ott. Several factors are taken into consideration when deciding whether to issue or deny a permit.

They include the condition and general health of the tree, whether it is a public nuisance or safety hazard and its proximity to existing or proposed structures or utility poles.

The age and nature could warrant preservation. They provide public benefits that include their ability to reduce runoff of polluted storm water, filter air pollutants, supply shade, house birds, animals and insects and reduce carbon dioxide, energy use and noise.

People usually want to remove them if they die or become diseased or overgrown and start damaging the surrounding area.

Some homeowners offered to remove the trees and plant new ones, but they can’t because of their benefits and possible uniqueness to the area, such as Torrey pines.

Also, the existing code, written in 1988, requires a local environmental review for the removal of “significant trees” in the right of way but the word “significant” is not defined.

“The language in there is not really good,” Ott said, adding that many of the provisions “are contrary to each other.”

The public right of way is not an easement. It is owned by the city even though, as Councilwoman Lesa Heebner noted, it often looks like it is homeowner property.

“That’s what confusing,” Ott said, adding that a public right of way can be an area of dirt where people park cars or grow vegetation. “Sometimes they plant trees,” he said. “Sometimes they put up walls illegally and we make them get permits for that. … They presume it’s theirs but it’s not.”

The city recently received five permit requests to remove trees, none of which were planted by the city.

Ott said people generally never ask if they can plant in the public right of way. “They just do it,” he said.

A public right of way is defined as a strip of land acquired by the city for public uses, such as infrastructure for development, roads, crosswalks, railroads, sewers and electric transmission, oil, gas or water lines.

“More likely than not, it’s a sidewalk,” City Attorney Johanna Canlas said, noting that according to state law, “the private property owner adjacent to the sidewalk has a responsibility, has a duty to the city, to maintain that sidewalk.”

“Often, though, it’s for the future expansion of a roadway,” Ott added.

Because the lack of clarity in the existing code can sometimes result in arbitrary decisions, Ott asked for the moratorium so he could research what other cities do to create new regulations.

“The word moratorium is very finite,” resident Sue Sherry said. “Moratorium says stop, and that just doesn’t remind me of … the way we approach things here.

“Take each case individually like we do with other things in Solana Beach,” said Sherry, who has a dying jacaranda in front of her home.

“Been thinking about cutting it down,” she said. “If I have a moratorium I can’t cut it down. I think it’s a joke. It drops stuff all over my car. It stains my car. It’s dying and I should be able to cut it down.”

“I don’t think anyone has anything against trees, extra CO2, beauty, shade,” resident Kerry Kayjanian said. “I think the problem is the damage that some of the trees are causing some of the residents.

“We basically have sat here and talked about … how important it is to keep the trees,” she added. “I agree. But nothing was mentioned about what happens to people and their home when there has been damage.

“I’m for trees,” Kayjanian said. “I used to crawl on them and climb up them. If there’s damage we have to think about the citizens.”

Mayor Tom Campbell said there is a process when that happens. “Why do you think you have the right to cut down something that’s not on your property?” he asked Tracy Weiss, another resident who said she has a dying tree in front of her home.

Campbell likened the situation to planting a tree in a neighbor’s yard and then cutting it down.

Ott said there are other options to deal with invasive trees besides cutting them down, including trimming the roots or installing root barriers.

“There’s good reasons to take trees down,” Heebner said. “Good reasons to leave them up. I think it makes sense that the city manager asked us to look at this to provide clarity.”

Ott will consider what other cities are doing and return within 45 days with recommendations for new regulations. Meanwhile, permits will continue to be issued for special conditions only.

“It’s not perfect but it’s movement in the right direction, hopefully,” Campbell said. With luck, council is barking up the right tree.

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