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Ficus are on the chopping block

Times Staff Writer

The fight over the fate of the 54 ficus trees in Santa Monica isn’t exactly over, but a judge’s decision Thursday will probably lead to their removal within a few weeks.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones dismissed a lawsuit that sought a trial to determine whether the city could remove the ficus trees along 2nd and 4th streets in downtown Santa Monica as part of an $8-million beautification project.

The lawsuit, filed by activist Jerry Rubin and a group dedicated to protecting the city’s trees, was the last legal recourse activists hoped they would take before resorting to “non-violent protests” such as a City Hall sit-in or chaining themselves to trees.

“Today’s ruling put a black eye on the city that claims it’s green,” said Louise Steiner, a member of the tree protection group Treesavers, who cried after Thursday’s ruling.

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Conceding there were “interesting arguments” in Treesavers’ favor, Jones said the city had provided documents made public in 2005 that announced the ficus tree removal. Under state law, Jones ruled, activists would have had to have filed a suit by April 10, 2006, for the case to go to trial.

“In so ruling, I believe the city did what was required,” Jones said at the close of the hourlong hearing. “The public was clearly on notice of the city’s plans.”

City planners want to remove some ficus trees to open up parts of 2nd and 4th streets to more sun, in the vein of the Third Street Promenade. Each ficus will be replaced with two young ginkgo trees.

The city identified 54 trees it said interfered with bus traffic and had cracked sidewalks, causing thousands of dollars in upkeep, repairs and payouts from “trip-and-fall” lawsuits by pedestrians.

Of the 54 trees slated for removal, 23 would be destroyed and 31 others relocated, potentially to the Santa Monica Municipal Airport, said Elaine Polachek, director of community maintenance.

In October, Rubin obtained a three-week restraining order to protect the trees until Treesavers could submit a request to the city to get 153 ficus trees downtown designated as landmarks, stopping any removal.

But last month, the city’s Landmarks Commission denied the request, a decision upheld last week by the Santa Monica City Council.

Assistant City Atty. Joseph Lawrence said after the hearing that the city would need at least a few days to prepare for the ficus removal, but could delay the process by a few weeks if necessary.

Rubin said that Treesavers members are each assigned to a tree that they will chain themselves to or climb up in protest, but the group is first seeking a meeting with the mayor and city manager before taking any action.

A sit-in demonstration at City Hall and potential appeal of Jones’ decision are also possible.

“The court said today that the city could remove the trees, but that doesn’t mean they have to,” Rubin said.

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francisco.varaorta@latimes.com


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