New Delay on Joshua Trees in Palmdale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After more than three years of debate and delay, Palmdale has again stalled a plan to require preservation of native Joshua trees, a palm-like desert symbol that gave the city its name.

Although developers steadfastly fought the preservation ordinance in the past, they now say they are satisfied with the measure. But homeowner groups and community leaders called for a delay this week, complaining that the city had yet to obtain land where trees saved from building sites could be stored.

The gnarly and spiny Joshuas grow only in the vast Mojave Desert and nearby areas. The unique tree is featured on Palmdale's city seal, and for many they are a symbol of the desert. The city got its name in the late 1800s when travelers mistook the Joshuas for yucca palms.

But the latest in a long string of delays has left some conservationists wondering about the tree's future.

"They're the logo of Palmdale," and yet city officials "give blanket permits to go plow them under. That's called the hypocrisy of our age," said Gayle Groenendaal, a natural sciences professor at Antelope Valley College.

The city's Planning Commission voted 4-0 Thursday to delay a decision on the proposed ordinance until an unspecified date. The measure would have required developers to preserve at least two trees--either Joshuas or California Junipers--for every acre of their projects, if there are trees on the land.

The measure would encourage developers to preserve trees already growing on their sites. But they also could meet the requirements by donating trees to the city, the public or other projects for planting elsewhere in the city. If they did not, developers would have to pay the city a fee of $400 per acre developed.

The measure is in response to the housing boom that hit Palmdale and the surrounding Antelope Valley in the mid-1980s. Developers cleared vast areas of native desert vegetation and, by 1988, community leaders were calling for controls on the wholesale plowing under of the trees.

But the ordinance has been rewritten so many times that the city planners currently working on it have no record of what the original version said or when it was written. The measure took nearly a year to resurface after its last trip to the Planning Commission in June, 1989.

"I think one of the reasons it's been delayed so long is everyone has a different idea about what it's going to take to preserve the Joshua trees," said Laurie Lile, the city planner handling the measure. Some people don't like the trees, regarding them as ugly and dangerous, she added.

City planners recently considered creating a city Joshua tree preserve of 100 acres or more, figuring large builders might donate the land.

But the idea ran into a buzz saw of opposition from community and homeowner group leaders who instead want so-called tree banks. Under their plan, trees saved from development sites would be stored temporarily, but ultimately placed in medians, yards and other locations scattered citywide.

At this week's Planning Commission hearing, community leaders argued that it would be futile to pass the ordinance without a tree bank to store uprooted trees.

Meanwhile, Groenendaal complained, new home tracts arise and more trees are hauled to the dump. "If they don't do something, it's going to be developed wall-to-wall just like the San Fernando Valley," she said.

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