These days, Mayor Bill Ossenmacher is not a popular person in the Capistrano Beach area of the city.
That’s because Ossenmacher blocked a $100,000 plan to replace 12 dying Canary Island date palms in the Palisades--historic trees that are considered the signature of that section of Capistrano Beach.
After two years of wrangling, the City Council last week was set to approve a contract to plant a dozen new, 20-foot palms, only to see Ossenmacher nix the plan because he thought the price tag was too high.
His vote landed like a bombshell in Capistrano Beach, where the expected contract was considered the first step in replacing 55 of the 75-year-old trees that are dying from an incurable fungus called fusarium wilt.
“We’re in absolute shock,” said Ann Romano, president of the Capistrano Beach Community Assn., a group that represents the community’s 6,000 residents. “Now we just don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Ossenmacher said he couldn’t justify spending so much money on only one small neighborhood in the 6-square-mile city.
“I’m supportive of planting trees, but the idea of spending $100,000 to plant 12 trees in one neighborhood when there are so many other needs in our community just doesn’t make sense to me,” Ossenmacher explained after his vote. “We have areas that need sidewalks and road improvements. This seems like a misplaced priority to me.”
City Councilwoman Karen Lloreda, who lives in Capistrano Beach and is often at odds with Ossenmacher, called his vote “politics.”
“It’s real simple,” Lloreda said Tuesday. “This is Bill’s way of saying either you vote for something I want or I won’t vote for something you want.”
Lloreda and other Capistrano Beach residents said Ossenmacher had earlier supported the plan to replace the trees since the fungus was discovered two years ago. There was never any hint that he would oppose the plan at the last moment, they said.
With only three of the five council members voting on the palm issue, Ossenmacher’s lone no vote was decisive because Dana Point policy requires three votes to approve the allocation of city funds.
“I would have gone to the community to raise my voice on the issue, but we just considered it a fait accompli,” said Chris Tarman-Major, a landscape architect from the Palisades who chaired the homeowners association palm committee.
About 275 Canary Island date palms were planted in the Palisades when the area was subdivided by the oil-rich Doheny family in the 1920s. But in 1994 it was discovered they were suffering from the fungus, which had been spread by tree trimmers who did not clean their tools.
After the city attorney advised the council that suing the contractor would be fruitless, the neighborhood suggested replacing the expensive trees in phases. The trees, which are also prevalent in Santa Barbara, Claremont and Palo Alto, give the Palisades distinction, Romano said.
“We are happy to be in that company, but unfortunately it looks like our historic grove is not as important to certain council members,” Romano said.
Ossenmacher said the city is in the midst of planting 300 tipuana tipu trees in Dana Point’s town center area, at a cost of $55,000. That’s $50 to $60 a tree compared to $2,000 to $4,000 a tree, not including installation, for the palms, Ossenmacher said.
“I would support a project with a tree budget more on a par with what we are doing in other parts of town,” Ossenmacher said.