Cuts to keep streets safe

He remembers driving by rows of eucalyptus trees protecting 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 a just a boy. Today, Skinner, 80, a prominent local environmental activist, says the towering trees have long outlived their use.

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

City contractors were removing about 100 eucalyptus trees Wednesday in reaction to the fatal accident last week that 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. City officials moved swiftly and sawed trunks and limbs before many had a chance to react.

"It's a heartbreaking decision," said Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff, whose city is under contract with Costa Mesa to care for the trees on their shared borders.

Four arborists determined 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 just one could jeopardize the others.

"It's like a fence that's all linked together," he said.

Kiff added that the arborists came to the same conclusion independently.

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

A few people gathered to watch. Patrick Vlahakis, 23, said he was there when firefighters removed the felled log from Miller's blue Hyundai hatchback. A resident nearby, Vlahakis said he was glad to see the trees go.

"They're too big," he said. "They're too overgrown."

As the blue gum eucalyptus 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 the collapse last week, and Kiff said arborists are still investigating why the tree fell.

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

To assess the remaining trees between Dover and Westcliff drives, Newport employed an outside arborist, two representatives of its tree maintenance company, West Coast Arborists, and a member of city staff.

They submitted their findings Tuesday afternoon, and officials announced they would begin the removals Wednesday morning.

A friend of Miller's, John Renfro, said that her family had not yet retained an attorney. Newport officials declined to talk about potential legal liability, while Costa Mesa leaders Tuesday night said Newport Beach would be responsible.

"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.

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

Newport officials said they would reach out to neighbors and business owners to determine a suitable species to replace the trees. While Newport is paying about $100,000 for the removal, it has not been determined who will pay for the trees' replacement.

"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 had an agreement since 2002 to maintain the trees.

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

More could be removed.

Staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

mike.reicher@latimes.com

Twitter: @mreicher

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