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Plan for tree removal and replacement in downtown Laguna Beach draws residents’ dismay

Trees on lower Broadway Street and Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach were tagged with yellow ribbons and markers indicating their planned removal as part of the Downtown Action Plan. Funding for that plan was up for City Council discussion Tuesday night.
Trees on lower Broadway Street and Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach were tagged with yellow ribbons and markers indicating their planned removal as part of the Downtown Action Plan. Funding for that plan was up for City Council discussion Tuesday night.
(Courtesy of Ann Christoph)

Several residents of Laguna Beach spoke for the trees Tuesday night, requesting during an hour-long hearing that the City Council not appropriate $1.6 million for the Downtown Action Plan, which could include removal and replacement of more than a hundred trees.

As part of its midyear budget update, the council was considering modifications to the adopted budget for the current fiscal year. A staff report prepared for Tuesday’s meeting indicated that the city’s parking fund ended the previous fiscal year, 2018-19, with $1.2 million more than expected due to parking meter and parking lot revenue, along with operational and other savings.

City staff recommended that the council appropriate $1.6 million toward the Downtown Action Plan, which contains 20 conceptual projects for the downtown area that could involve changes to tree wells, pavement, stormwater harvesting practices, crosswalks and bicycle infrastructure.

The council voted to approve the appropriation in addition to other recommendations outlined by staff, but voted to remove language indicating the funding explicitly dedicated for lower Forest Avenue.

SWA Group, a landscape architecture and urban design firm that the city retained in April, initially recommended in December replacing 115 trees throughout downtown due to poor canopies or structural health.

Dozens of trees on lower Broadway Street and Forest Avenue were tagged with yellow ribbons and markers indicating their planned removal.

Current plans indicate that seven trees on lower Forest would remain and 16 more would be planted. On lower Broadway, at least 16 trees would remain, with 21 to be planted.

Trees proposed include ghost gum and silver dollar for Forest and fern pine and London plane for Broadway.

The city Planning Commission will hear a final version of the Downtown Action Plan on March 4. If it is approved, it will move to the City Council for review later that month.

The appropriation request, combined with the $400,000 already appropriated for the Downtown Action Plan in the city’s capital investment fund, would push the total allocation to $2 million toward projects on lower Forest and Broadway.

Residents raised concerns about the $2 million, primarily focusing on the tree removal and what that could mean for the downtown area. Themes of conversation included shade, the length of time it takes for trees to grow even if replanted and the oxygen generated. One resident joked that the city should pardon the trees ahead of Arbor Day on April 24.

Others asked that budgeting for the plan be set aside until the final draft is reviewed by the Planning Commission.

“Only once since 1970 have I ever walked down the sidewalks of Laguna and had it be so crowded that it was uncomfortable. Once, and it was so hot that the blessed trees were the only thing that saved it,” Councilwoman Toni Iseman said.

”I think we owe it to those people who are going to go on to leave something of shade and wonder,” she said. “So, I’m hoping that we do set aside this money and have the Planning Commission address some of the issues.”

Mayor Bob Whalen added that there are $10 million worth of improvements in the plan and that the two streets in question are just part of it.

“You can really spark up a street with some better sidewalk improvements. There’s a lot of good stuff in this plan. We’re going to put the money aside for the Downtown Action Plan and we’re going to spend it wisely to invigorate the downtown, which needs a face lift,” Whalen said. “It’s not perfect. It can be improved, and we need to spend some money to improve it.”

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