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Removal of eucalyptus trees starts in Costa Mesa

He remembers driving by rows of eucalyptus trees that protected bean fields from coastal breezes.

That was in the 1930s, when Costa Mesa was still rural enough to be called Goat Hill and Jack Skinner was just a boy. Today, Skinner, 80, a prominent local environmental activist, says the towering trees have outlived their time.

“One would call me a tree-hugger,” he said, “but health would prevail in this particular case.”

Contractors on Wednesday began removing about 100 eucalyptus trees following a fatal accident last week in which a falling tree killed a motorist. The decades-old tree that fell from an Irvine Avenue median near 17th Street in Costa Mesa probably compromised others in its row, arborists said.

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“It’s a heartbreaking decision,” said Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff, whose city is contracted by Costa Mesa to care for the trees on their shared borders.

Four arborists determined that the “hedgerow” could have been compromised, Kiff said, and that the city should act before another tree fell. The canopy and roots support each other and losing even one could jeopardize the others. “It’s like a fence that’s all linked together,” he said.

Kiff said the arborists came to the same conclusion independently.

On Wednesday, the smell of eucalyptus oil hung in the air as men thrust chain-saws through flaky layers of bark. A makeshift memorial for the driver, 29-year-old Haeyoon Miller of Tustin, was moved from the median to the lawn of a nearby restaurant.

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A few people gathered to watch. Patrick Vlahakis, 23, said he was there when firefighters removed the tree from Miller’s blue Hyundai hatchback. Vlahakis, who lives nearby, said he was glad to see the trees go.

“They’re too big,” he said. “They’re too overgrown.”

As the trees aged or were removed over the years, some of the hedgerow could have been damaged earlier than last week, according to a city statement. But officials would not go so far as to pinpoint the cause of last week’s accident, and Kiff said arborists are still investigating why the tree fell.

Before the Sept. 15 accident, the last tree to fall on that part of Irvine Avenue was during a January 2010 storm, Kiff said.

Newport employed an outside arborist, two representatives of its tree maintenance company, West Coast Arborists, and a city staff member to assess the remaining trees between Dover and Westcliff drives. They submitted their findings Tuesday afternoon, and officials announced that they would begin the removals Wednesday morning.

John Renfro, a friend of Miller, said her family had not retained an attorney. Newport officials declined to talk about potential liability.

“We just want to focus on what we can do moving forward, on safety,” Kiff said.

Some residents complained that the city reacted too hastily.

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“For them to just decide we’re taking them out without a public forum is disgusting,” said Newport Heights resident William Velmer, 57.

City officials said they would reach out to neighbors and business owners to determine a suitable species to replace the trees. Though Newport is paying about $100,000 for the removal, who would pay for their replacements has not been determined.

“There are lots of options that are much safer,” Kiff said.

The Costa Mesa and Newport city boundaries run down Irvine Avenue’s median, and the cities share ownership of some of the trees, Kiff said. Newport has maintained the trees since 2002.

Both Newport Beach and Costa Mesa officials say they are inspecting other eucalyptus trees. Newport is examining about 330, Kiff said, and Costa Mesa officials announced Wednesday that they are specifically looking at 20 eucalyptus trees on the west side of Irvine Avenue.

More could be removed, they said.

mike.reicher@latimes.com

twitter.com/mreicher

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Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.


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