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Trees Get Expert’s Stump of Approval : Environment: Alden Kelley will fight cities, developers and homeowners to come to the aid of Southland greenery.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Berniece Pohlmann felt helpless as Santa Ana officials ran through their plans to fell the tall fig trees that form a shady canopy over Forest Avenue.

The meeting was going too fast, and she began to feel powerless to argue against the project, much less stop it.

That’s when she mentioned Fullerton arborist Alden Kelley’s name.

“I said he might be helping us, and their jaws just dropped and everything stopped,” she said. “They weren’t happy about it at all. I got the feeling they would have sprayed me with Mace if they had it. I mean, just saying his name pulled weight, just his name.

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For many Orange County officials and developers, Kelley evokes images of drawn-out battles over tree removals with a formidable expert who isn’t fond of bulldozers or the people who run them.

More than 40 times, Kelley, 59, has championed the cause of threatened Southland trees, including two dozen campaigns that have taken him into court as an expert witness.

The Santa Ana officials dealing with Pohlmann and her neighbors know Kelley from a dispute last year involving 132 liquidambar trees on Cabrillo Park Drive that were targeted for removal because of sidewalk damage. The residents organized, enlisted Kelley and protested until the city backed down.

This time, the trees facing removal are about 60 Indian laurel fig trees along the aptly named Forest Avenue between Riviera Drive and 21st Street in northwest Santa Ana. Stung by the Cabrillo Park Drive protests, the city polled residents about the removal of the towering fig trees and pledged to cut down only those trees in front of homes where owners approved.

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“Instead of going out and telling them what’s good for them, we went out and asked them what they wanted,” said city Public Works Director Jim Ross. “We found out that two-thirds of the affected homeowners were in favor of the removal.”

Ross said those supporters were swayed by the trees’ root damage to sidewalks and sewer lines, in addition to the mess caused by leaves and berries. Also, he said, residents were reassured by the city’s promise to plant new, less troublesome trees and reconstruct sidewalks and sewers.

But Pohlmann said the survey’s results are misleading. About a third of the residents along the street are renters who, in many cases, did not pass the survey on to the true homeowners, she said. Also, she said, no Spanish version of the survey was sent to Latino residents who cannot read English.

“There are a lot of people on this street who did not know about this until long after the city finished the survey,” she said.

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Pohlmann, who hosted a recent organizational meeting of Forest Avenue residents, said the worst aspect of dealing with the city has been the lack of information. There hasn’t been enough discussion of possible solutions besides removal, such as meandering sidewalks that would dodge the roots or underground corridors that would deflect them.

“I tried to talk to one guy from the city and he was like ‘Sweetheart, just go back into your little house and we’ll do what’s best for you,’ ” she said. “That’s why I called Kelley.”

Kelley, a longtime member of the Orange County Tree Society, spent a dozen years in college classrooms teaching the technology of trees before opting for a field job. “That’s when I found out how much a Ph.D. is not worth,” he said. Eventually, the pruning business he founded took off, and Kelley made the switch over to full-time tree consultant, taking jobs big and small.

“Being a consultant is more fun, easier and you make much more money,” he said.

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Kelley said he enjoys coming to the defense of trees but adds that he regrets how seldom he has the opportunity to do it.

“Orange County, for trees, is a terrible county to live in,” Kelley said. “There’s a very good climate here, and trees thrive here when humans don’t do stupid things--but that’s not very often. . . . It’s not so much that trees need care from humans, it’s more that they need protection from them.”

The stupid things, he says, include smog, overdevelopment, bad landscaping and widespread disrespect for trees. In one case, a Beverly Hills resident razed 19 Aleppo pine trees on an adjacent property to improve his view. It angered a neighboring property owner, who turned to Kelley and the courts for help.

Kelley examined the steep slope that had been home to the trees and testified that the replacement value would be about $320,000, a total six times higher than estimates made by other arborists.

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The wide difference, Kelley said, is because he doesn’t subscribe to the industrywide grading system, which he calls overly conservative and misguided because it considers factors such as location. Instead, he places worth by judging replacement cost, an approach that earns a liberal dose of criticism from his peers.

“I disagree with his system because I think it overvalues trees,” said Fred Roth, an arborist and professor at Cal Poly Pomona. “Under the (International Society of Arboriculture) system, a tree in front of a house would be worth more than one at the far back end of a lot, but with Alden’s they both would be worth the replacement amount.

“Also, ISA is the industry standard, so it has acceptance,” Roth said. “It has a stamp of approval that Alden’s system doesn’t have.”

But the jurors on the Beverly Hills case listened to Kelley’s logic. They ruled that the trees were worth $400,000--almost eight times their value under the industry system--and then proceeded to tack on $1 million more in punitive damages.

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“Oh, I was very pleased,” Kelley said. “I was so mad that this guy had done this. He cut down these trees just so he could have a marvelous view of smog-ridden Santa Monica in the distance.”

Pohlmann said she hopes Kelley’s string of successes will continue with the Forest Avenue effort. When the decision is made, Pohlmann said, she thinks residents will opt for removal of all the trees or of none of them, instead of partial removal, which would ruin the area’s beauty and leave the problems caused by the large trees intact.

But if they follow the city’s advice, Pohlmann said, one of the contingencies she will lobby for is Kelley’s presence during new tree species selection and installation.

“I think that would be the best way to make sure it gets done right this time,” she said. “We don’t want them to put the wrong trees in the wrong way and end up with this problem again.”

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Kelley said such a scenario is not unlikely. Santa Ana city officials plan to replace the existing fig trees with London plain sycamores, a tree Kelley said will create similar problems with the street’s sidewalks and sewage lines in a decade or two.


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