Proposal to remove old-growth tree uproots passions

It's a towering anomaly on a block of saplings and slender pines, a cluster of branches that extend toward the sky and a bulging sidewalk that looks like an underground fist has punched it in the same direction.

No one traveling south from Huntington Beach High School or City Hall could miss the massive eucalyptus in front of 1751 Main St.

The roots have lifted the concrete so high — 15 inches — that the area in front of the house resembles a makeshift skateboard ramp. According to neighbors, some kids use it for exactly that purpose. They gather momentum on the long, flat stretch of pavement and then sail off the bump.

The tree has an athletic look of its own: The trunk, encased in a strip of grass between the sidewalk and curb, twists toward the street, as if ready to leap off, the grooves in its bark like the pleats of a wind-swept skirt.

Sandy Jarema, who lives behind the eucalyptus, said she's seen old maps of the city that indicate it was there before the concrete it now rearranges.

"You can see, there's no house," she said. "There's just the land and that tree."

But even if the tree predates Huntington, it appears the city will outlive it. The Beautification, Landscape and Tree Committee voted April 30 to remove 17 trees from Main between Adams and Utica avenues, and the eucalyptus in front of Jarema's house is among them.

The city aims to remove the trees not for visual purposes, but for safety.

Later this year, it plans to repair the sidewalk, pavement, curb and gutter on that stretch of Main, and the trees will have to come down first — in part because some of them might topple over with their casing removed. Under the wrong circumstances, that could mean a fatality.

Travis Hopkins, the city's director of public works, pointed to an incident last September along the Newport Beach-Costa Mesa border, when a eucalyptus fell and crushed a woman in her car as she was waiting at a red light.

In place of the trees that are coming down, Huntington officials plan to install new ones — with a foresight that the original planters didn't have, possibly because, in at least one case, they didn't have a sidewalk with which to contend.

"No one knew, when they planted them years ago, the impact it would have," Hopkins said. "But now we typically don't plant trees that outgrow the room in the parkways."


A landmark and a hazard

Jean Nagy, the president of the Huntington Beach Tree Society, sees the pending removal of the eucalyptus as two stories in one. The first is about a neighborhood losing a visual icon, and, of course, the air losing the environmental benefits the tree brings.

The second story is about the modernization of Surf City. Five years ago, Nagy got down in the dirt with other volunteers and city officials. They set to work planting Camphors — potentially huge trees that line medians up and down Main and, someday, could loom as high as the eucalyptus.

But there's a key difference, she noted: Those trees are contained inside the median, which means plenty of room and no sidewalk to poke through.

In the future, she said, that will likely be the home of oversized trees in her neighborhood, at least outside of parks.

"Children don't get to see these big trees when you live in a city situation," Nagy said. "But since we've put so many houses close together, that's a whole problem too. How can you let these trees stay so big when the houses are so close together?"

Nagy expressed sadness about the eucalyptus, which she called "a piece of history." But she admitted that the city had few alternatives.

Facts and figures about the tree are elusive.

Jarema's heard people call it the city's oldest or biggest tree, but officials couldn't provide statistics.

She said that when she and her husband built their home 20 years ago, a tree society spared the eucalyptus by telling the city it was a historic landmark. She could not remember the group's name, however.

City spokeswoman Laurie Frymire said the tree had no such designation on record.

Regardless of the tree's historic value, some on the block see it as a visual staple for its size and splendor.

Della Chapman, who lives across the street, savors the look of it after dark, when the lamps illuminate the branches that stretch out almost in a sphere.

"We love the tree," Chapman said. "It gives us wonderful shade, and when I'm driving down Springfield [Avenue], it's always the first thing I see."

However, George Camps, who lives a few doors down from the tree, said the burgeoning pavement has become a cause for concern.

"When you go down and see what the sidewalk looks like, I think its time has come," he said.


'They take them out pretty rapidly'

The city informed the homeowners in late April that it was looking to remove the trees in front of their properties.

Two of the trees are in declining health, while the rest pose safety risks, Hopkins said.

The 17 city-owned trees, which total about half those by the sidewalk on the chosen strip of Main, all have their own stories, some more sentimental than others.

A few residents can't wait for the chain saws to start whirring. When Camps moved to his house 18 years ago, it had a smaller eucalyptus that has since lifted the sidewalk about an inch before his front door.

He considers the leaves and sap that scatter his front yard an ongoing nuisance.

"It doesn't bother me at all," Camps said of the removal plan. "It's a mess. All year, it drops."

John Peterson, who lives at the corner of Main and Utica, has a more personal connection to his tree. The self-employed homebuilder planted a carrotwood tree in his front yard when he built his house a quarter century ago, and one of the seeds that fell from it sprouted into another tree that now crowds the curb.

Over the years, Peterson has used the tree for shade, but he admits that its roots have started to nudge the sidewalk upward. The city has already removed one branch by the curb for parking considerations, he said.

"It's kind of a bad spot to put a swing on anything," Peterson said. "And it doesn't grow fruit."

Following the vote by the beautification committee, which includes Mayor Don Hansen and Councilmen Devin Dwyer and Joe Shaw, the project will be advertised for public bid and eventually brought to the City Council for a vote to award the contract to the lowest responsible bidder.

The tree removal would likely take place in late summer, said Denny Bacon, maintenance operations manager for the Public Works Department.

He estimated that it would take three to four days to complete the entire stretch of Main — and that the tall eucalyptus, history and all, could come down in a few hours.

"With today's equipment, they take them out pretty rapidly," Bacon said. "It doesn't go on for days."

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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