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Laguna looks for ways to save its ailing 135-year-old pepper tree at City Hall

This 135-year-old California pepper tree in front of Laguna Beach City Hall stands 36 feet high and has “serious” structural defects, including a void in the main trunk, the city reported in June.
(Bryce Alderton | Daily Pilot)

The Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday favored exhausting more options before deciding the fate of a 135-year-old pepper tree that greets visitors to City Hall.

In a unanimous vote, the council took up resident Thilde Peterson’s offer to put the city in touch with specialists in diseased trees to investigate possible alternatives other than two options presented by city staff.

As part of the vote, Mayor Toni Iseman and Councilman Steve Dicterow agreed to be on a subcommittee.

The tree, which stands 36 feet tall, has “serious” structural defects, including a void in the main trunk, the city reported in June when the council first discussed the matter.

Two arborists had recommended removing the pepper tree, planted by homesteader George Rogers, because it could fall, the city report said.

City staff returned Tuesday with two options — cut the tree to a 2- or 8-foot-tall trunk and plant a replacement tree.

In the former case, crews would remove cavities and voids currently filled with concrete and expanding foam, according to a city staff report.

In the latter case, the cut would still leave concrete and foam in the tree, the report said. In this scenario, crews would add cables and straps to hold the tree in place.

If the tree were left taller than 8 feet, a structure would need to hold it up to prevent it from falling, Public Works director Shohreh Dupuis told the council.

Councilman Steve Dicterow was dissatisfied with the choices.

“I’m appalled at what I’m looking at when I look at the 2- and [8]-foot options,” Dicterow said. “That’s not at all what I understood what it would look like from our last meeting.”

Decorated with lights in December, the tree has become a focal point of Hospitality Night, Laguna’s annual celebration to mark the beginning of the holiday season.

The discussion of the pepper tree was triggered last August when the council approved hiring BGB Design Group to devise landscape improvements for the City Hall lawn area. Work included assessment of seven trees in the area.

Staff looked into replacement trees and recommended a 28-foot-tall pepper tree from Sunland that would cost $53,500 be planted in the middle of the lawn.

The price included delivery, maintenance and warranty and was $28,300 more than another tree from San Marcos. Trimming the existing tree would cost an additional $3,700, the staff report said.

The collective consensus among speakers and the council was to look for ways to preserve more of the existing tree.

“Without doubt, if there is a way it can be saved, we’re 100% there,” Bob Borthwick, a landscape architect and founder of BGB Design Group, told the council. “So far, staff has looked at that and has not found a magic solution. As a landscape architect I can’t say whether there is one or not.

“Taking all the way down to 2 feet is close to taking it out altogether. Clearly 8 feet looks at least like a tree. The 2-foot [tree] does not have that quality.”

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce


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