A group of residents have dubbed the removal of nine ficus trees from downtown streets as "The Chainsaw Massacre."
Seven speakers voiced their anguish and anger about the removal of the trees at Tuesday's City Council meeting. They urged more prudent pruning and aesthetic consideration in the future — rather than destruction or replacement — to preserve the character of downtown Laguna.
"It's true, as Joni Mitchell sang, 'you don't know what you've got till it's gone,'" Barbara MacGillivray said. "I never realized until last week how emotionally attached I am to our colorful light-green canopy. Watching the tree wrecking crew obliterate the three lovely ficus close to the Marine Room on Ocean Avenue was devastating."
Pam Goldstein said it will take 50 years for Ocean Avenue to recover its aesthetic appeal.
"Laguna is a beautiful place," Goldstein said. "Why are we destroying it and who ordered this massacre?"
The council unanimously approved the removal and replacement of seven trees, six of them ficus, at the April 9 meeting as part of a sidewalk repair project. Those trees were located on Forest and Ocean avenues and on Second and Mermaid streets.
Removal of the three ficus in front of the defunct Big Dog store on Ocean Avenue was approved 4-1 at the April 23 meeting, with Councilwoman Toni Iseman opposed.
The Planning Commission recommended their removal as a condition of its approval to renovate the building for a new restaurant, despite the property owner's preference to preserve the trees.
Greg MacGillivray said trees have commercial value as well as aesthetic appeal. He advised the council that trees help differentiate Laguna from other communities.
"We need to be careful not to lose what we have got," McGillivray said.
Village Laguna President Ginger Osborne also lamented the damage to what she called the downtown "treescape."
"Though I know treescape is not a word, it communicates the idea that trees through their canopies and shade give character to the downtown," Osborne said. "I understand there may have been legitimate reasons of safety for removing some of these trees, but I urge you in the future instead to take measures to save our mature trees through removing of surface roots and redoing the sidewalks."
Money is at the root of the city's decision to remove the trees, according to City Manager John Pietig.
"Trees are beautiful and we are doing what we can to preserve them, but there is a cost," Pietig said. "Over the last five years, the city has paid out more than $300,000 to settle trip and fall claims. And we spend $150,000 annually to repair sidewalks and other infrastructure damaged by the trees."
Eleanor Henry said property owners have the same struggles with ficus trees that the city has.
"People who have to have their sewers routed out don't like them," Henry said. "Other trees don't have the same problems."
Former Arts Commission chairwoman Leah Vasquez read a letter from Charlotte Masarik, who also borrowed a sentiment from songstress Mitchell: "They paved paradise and put up new sidewalks."
Neither thought repairing sidewalks was too big a price to pay to keep the trees, particularly big trees.
"The larger the tree, the more it helps to settle out, trap and hold particulate pollutants — car fumes, dust, ash pollen and smoke that damage human lungs," Vasquez read. "These trees absorb CO2 and other dangerous gases and in turn replenish the atmosphere with oxygen."
Replacement trees will be planted, Pietig said, pending a council decision on the species recommended by the city's landscape architect.
Barbara MacGillivray said more discussion should be held before condemning nearly 60-year-old trees to death.
"At least black banners could be wrapped around those trees doomed to oblivion well in advance so that either further discussion could ensue, or at the very least, appropriate mourning," MacGillivray said.