City manager excuses himself from tree decision

City employees who live in town can better understand its residents' problems.

While that was the reason for paying half of City Manager Dave Kiff's home, council members probably weren't envisioning a situation he now faces.

Kiff lives next to a row of eucalyptus trees that an arborist has determined may need to be removed, and his neighbors are preparing to fight that decision. This leaves him in the awkward spot as the ultimate decision-maker for removing the trees. Instead, he has elected to step aside and let other staff members make the call.

"I've always liked their character, beauty, shade and the role many of these trees played in protecting the farm fields that once filled this community," Kiff wrote in an open letter to his neighbors. "I fully understand, however, that the city's main duty, its purpose, is to serve and protect its residents and visitors."

Tustin resident Haeyoon Miller was killed in September when a eucalyptus on Irvine Avenue fell on her car and killed her. Newport officials have removed about 140 of the same blue gum species since then.

Earlier this week, city officials released a report by contract arborist Dan Jensen that found some of the trees' roots may be compromised. He analyzed 14 trees on 23rd Street, in the West Bay neighborhood, for their overall health and threat to the public. Seven of those trees are directly in front of Kiff's home.

Jensen found that four trees on the street suffer from sulfur fungus, which could ultimately lead to a tree falling. He also noted that one of the trees in front of Kiff's home leans over the road. That tree scored 10 out of 12 on a hazard scale. Only one other tree scored nine or above, which is Jensen's threshold for prompt removal.

However, the city plans to remove eight trees, including two that pose a "moderate risk" because their roots are connected to the others, according to spokeswoman Tara Finnigan.

The decision rests with Municipal Operations Director Mark Harmon and Assistant City Manager Dana Smith. Typically, Kiff would make the call about removing trees that are not posing an emergency or considered "special" under the city policies. Special trees have to get approval from the Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission.

The commission recently denied the removal of 18 eucalyptus trees in the same neighborhood along Holiday Road. Those trees were considered special under the city policy because they "define the neighborhood."

David Hayes, one of Kiff's neighbors, spoke against the removal of those trees at the commission hearing. He lives on Fairhill Drive, which runs north from 23rd Street.

"I wish [Kiff] would be able to help us and not recuse himself from this situation," Hayes said. "I just find it hard to believe that these trees need to come out."

Hayes and some other residents have called on the city to test the trees roots, but Kiff claims that most methods would expose the roots to fungus.

Twitter: @mreicher

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World