Upset residents dub city tree project 'failure to communicate'

COSTA MESA — In a surprise for many Westside residents during the last two weeks, contractors hired by the city were showing up at their homes in the morning, digging up the edges of their lawns and planting trees — without notifying them ahead of time.

Pete and Aline Brower, who live on Bernard Street, were surprised to wake up to crews digging up the grass next to their yard last week.

"If they had notified, it would've stopped some of the confusion," Pete Brower said. "It seemed sort of random, but I don't see it as a problem. Putting vegetation anywhere is a positive in my eyes."

Residents like the Browers are calling the project a "failure to communicate" because many were not notified about the work beforehand.

"We've never done a project like this, a wholesale planting of neighborhoods," said Bruce Hartley, Costa Mesa's maintenance services manager. "It's 654 people, so it was a little bit more of a challenge and, after the fact, well, we should've figured out a way to notify."

Using $100,000 in federal grants to improve medium- to lower-income neighborhoods, the city hired STL Landscaping to plant the trees. Workers showed up unannounced to hundreds of homes and planted the trees on the edge of the lawn, which is technically public property.

The public easement goes about 10 feet onto the property from the curb, Hartley said. Usually, there's a sidewalk separating the homeowner's land from the city's, but in some cases it looks like one big lawn.

Costa Mesa city officials have made a big push this year to increase transparency to the public, but apparently there was no dialogue in this project leading up to the launch.

About 10% of residents were calling the city with questions or complaints, Hartley said, so the Public Services Department notified the remaining 100 or so scheduled to receive them what was in store.

"It's not as confrontational; people seem more willing," Hartley said. "When the trees show up in your front yard, and you didn't ask for it, it's a different story."

The city is working to accommodate residents who want the trees removed. Circles of dirt and browned grass can be seen where crews returned and removed the trees.

Costa Mesa has about 8,000 properties listed as vacant of trees — they don't go door to door to verify if the residents have planted their own — so there's no shortage of places to put in trees that residents don't want. There are about 22,000 city trees planted in the city, Hartley said.

Patsy Latscha, who has lived on Center Street for more than 35 years, was one who wanted nothing to do with the program.

Standing in front of her house, she pointed out the spot where she dug out the tree herself and then put it in the middle of the street after the crews didn't take it away just after planting it.

"I love that Costa Mesa prides itself on being a city of trees, but this property is not in need of trees," she said.

Indeed, with seven trees blocking the view of her house from the street, and with another eight behind them, Latscha's land is not lacking in foliage. Down the street, workers planted a tree just feet from two towering pine trees, which she said are sure to starve the city's tree from water.

In years past, the city has planted trees on a smaller scale and told residents what was coming, Hartley said.

"The first time they were so accommodating," Latscha said. "This was such a waste of time. I'm sure there are so many people in Costa Mesa that would've wanted a tree."

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