Council approves removal of 11 eucalyptus trees

Eleven eucalyptus trees in Bluebird Canyon will be chopped down, settling a passionate debate that has lasted for about a year.

Safety trumped aesthetics and the City Council voted 4-1 to follow the city arborist's recommendation to remove the trees, despite fervent pleas to preserve them, countered by equally fervent pleas to protect lives and property. Twenty-eight speakers went to the rostrum in the hour-long hearing: 16 for removal, 12 for preservation.

"I don't think anyone here is wrong," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson. "We all celebrate beauty in Laguna, but we [the city] are liable, especially now with the report."

Pearson made a motion to carry out arborist Ed Black's recommendations to cut the trees and trim four others, but went further.

She suggested replacing the removed trees with other species in safer locations, with the advice of a hired landscape professional and input from the public; and the development of a maintenance program for the remaining trees based on species, to be reported to the council.

A $35,000 contract was approved with Modern Horticulture Services for the removal, trimming and replacement services.

Mace Morse questioned the qualifications of the city's arborist, who prepared the report on which the city based its decision.

"No disrespect to Ed, but he wouldn't be called as an expert witness," Morse said.

Morse said the arborist he hired had better credentials and had recommended pruning and crown reduction rather than removal of the trees.

"Fear is forcing your hand when a more reasoned approach is warranted," Morse said.

Supporters of the trees removal agreed that fear prompted their concern.

"I ask you to remove the trees," Clara Frantz said. "Some are dangerously close to power lines and the fire season is upon us."

Arborist Jean Hall said it grieved her to recommend taking down living trees, but safety was a priority.

"I believe we have a ticking time bomb situation here and a replacement program should be considered," Hall said.

Laguna Nursery owner Ruben Flores said the condition of the condemned trees is the fault of poor maintenance.

"Every one of them has some structural damage — but so do a lot of us," Flores said. "We have to put safety first, but we have to respect these trees."

Councilwoman Toni Iseman, who first voted against Pearson's motion, changed her vote when the maintenance program was added.

"Most of these trees got a bad haircut, at the minimum," Iseman said. "This brings up the question of whether the city properly maintains the trees."

Overall city policy is to trim its trees every two years, but some species need trimming every year, some every three years, Public Works Director Steve May said.

All 11 trees slated for removal are city-owned and in the city's right-of-way.

Naturalist Kimberly Leeds said maintenance isn't the problem: eucalyptus are an invasive, non-native tree that become torches that explode in fires, not ideal in a box canyon like Bluebird, among other undesirable characteristics.

The issue of unsafe eucalyptus in the canyon was first raised in October 2011 when Bluebird Canyon residents learned that Edison was on the verge of chopping down five trees the utility deemed dangerous.

Outraged residents came to the council last November to protest Edison's decision, which was supported by city staff and the fire department.

City Manager John Pietig said Edison had put the city on notice of a dangerous situation, which could be a problem if no action was taken and a disaster occurred, such as a tree falling on a person or knocking down power lines, causing a fire.

Edison recanted in December, a decision not everyone in Bluebird Canyon supported.

In light of concerns about public safety and liability, the council voted in January to appropriate $10,000 for an evaluation of all city-owned trees in Bluebird Canyon and Black was hired

He looked at 31 trees and recommended removal of 11 in a report completed in May.

"I was excited when we hired an arborist," said Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger, the lone vote against removal. "I never expected the result we got."

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