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SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO : Leaning Pine Tree the Focus of Debate

A downtown bank wants to remove a tall pine tree that is leaning steeply over its rooftop, but city officials who take tree preservation seriously are not so sure the conifer should end up in someone’s fireplace.

Fourteen years ago, the same debate made its way to the City Council, with a different bank asking unsuccessfully for permission to chop down the same pine, citing potential safety hazards.

“It’s been a major victory for the community to preserve large trees,” said City Councilwoman Carolyn Nash, who favors keeping the angular pine alive. “We don’t want a manicured, plastic community.”

The big 50-year-old tree is rooted in a city right-of-way in front of the Great Western Bank at Del Obispo Street and Camino Capistrano.

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Two other council members said they do not oppose the pine’s remaining if it is not in danger of falling over.

“We have to be careful that we don’t put public safety second,” Councilman Gil Jones said.

City officials hope to decide the tree’s fate at staff level this time, City Manager George Scarborough said.

Scarborough said the city plans to hire two arborists for expert opinions, after one hired by Great Western Bank said last month that the tree could topple if hit by high winds and heavy rain.

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“It’s at about a 21-degree angle,” said Bob Nesbitt, an arborist from Orange hired by the bank. “We generally frown upon leaners.”

Nesbitt said he didn’t know if some of the tree’s roots were cut during road-widening work more than a decade ago on Del Obispo Street.

A towering, thick eucalyptus next to the pine stands straight.

John Tomakin, a bank spokesman, said the pine presents a danger to pedestrians and customers.

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But Nash said the pine has always been at an angle, and its preservation was a condition of city approval for the development that houses the bank.

Nash said local activists halted bulldozers when bringing the issue to the city’s attention.

The city’s tree ordinance requires a permit to remove any tree more than three inches in diameter and six inches above the ground.

The city is so serious about the pine that sheriff’s deputies were asked to keep an eye out Aug. 3 for any bank-hired tree crews that might have begun work at dawn under the mistaken notion that the conifer could go.

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William Huber, the city’s director of building and engineering, said the deputies were enlisted only because other city staff members weren’t available to check on the tree.

Huber said opinions from other arborists will help the city decide what to do.

“We’re not trained, to be honest, in trees,” he said. “We only administer the program.”


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