Plan to Save Joshua Trees Put on Hold in Palmdale : Symbol: The spiny tree is featured on the city seal, but developers have cleared large areas of the Mojave Desert, the only place they grow.

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 desert symbol that gave the city its name.

Although developers had steadfastly fought the preservation ordinance in the past, they say they are now satisfied.

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 Planning Commission voted 4-0 Thursday to delay a decision on the proposed ordinance until an unspecified future 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 trees are growing on the land.

The measure would encourage developers to preserve trees already growing on their sites.

But they also could meet its 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 an outgrowth of the housing boom that struck Palmdale and the surrounding Antelope Valley in the mid-1980s.

Developers cleared vast areas of desert vegetation and, by 1988, community leaders were calling for controls on the wholesale plowing under of the trees.

But the ensuing saga has seen the ordinance rewritten so many times that the city planners now working on it no longer have any 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 for the measure.

Some people don't even 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 that 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.

The city has been negotiating with the Air Force to use buffer land around its Plant 42 runways in Palmdale for that purpose, but has no deal yet.

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

"I want to see the tree bank there, not promises," said Joe Sage, a director of the Palmdale Water District who is nicknamed "Joshua Joe" for his longtime support of the preservation effort.

Sage also argued against the preserve concept, asking: "Who wants trees stuck off in some remote area?"

However, Groenendaal, who was not at the hearing, said only a preserve would protect the Joshuas and the broader ecosystem of the desert.

"Saving them piecemeal is not saving anything. It's a token," she said. "You might as well set up a botanical garden and a zoo."

She said scientists understand little about how the distinctive trees interrelate with other creatures and plants in the desert.

And although she does not oppose the tree bank concept, Groenendaal said a preserve would not expose trees to the risk of dying during transfer to a tree bank or during transplanting.

Meanwhile, new home tracts arise and more trees are hauled to the dump, Groenendaal complained. "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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