Many South Laguna residents thought that trees on their streets were automatically given heritage status when the area was annexed by Laguna Beach, but the City Council ruled otherwise on Tuesday.
The council voted 3-1 to require South Laguna property owners seeking heritage status for their trees to file an application. Residents had maintained that when the city adopted the South Laguna Specific Plan, trees inventoried by the county were presumed to come under the same protection provided heritage trees in pre-annexation Laguna.
Documents going back 25 years were presented by people on both sides of the issue.
“Looking at contemporaneous documents, I can only arrive at the conclusion that the (inventory) was made, but records do not support that they were heritage trees,” said Councilman Robert Whalen.
He read from a document dated 1991 to prove his point:
“The inventory identifies trees that are important to South Laguna and that should be preserved whenever possible. It should be noted that this designation is not — and ‘not’ is underlined — the same as the city’s heritage tree designation.
“Trees identified on the South Laguna Heritage Tree Inventory are not subject to the city’s ordinance without first being nominated and approved by the City Council.”
Becky Jones, a planning commissioner at the time of the annexation, said denying the trees heritage status was a betrayal.
“They should get the same treatment as city trees,” Jones said.
Councilwoman Toni Iseman agreed and voted to give the South Laguna trees city heritage status.
A letter submitted by the South Laguna Civic Assn. said the city should affirm that the South Laguna trees were placed on the city’s heritage list, as was assumed by the residents at the time of the annexation.
However, Three Arch Bay, at the tail end of South Laguna, notified the city that it was not interested in having its trees on the heritage list. The Three Arch Bay Assn. communicated through attorneys that the city should cease further communication with residents about the inventory, which had created unwarranted confusion and apprehension, according to the letter.
Other residents also wrote to the city indicating that they did not want trees on their properties on the heritage list.
The city ordinance, as last amended in 1998, created a process under which applications for heritage tree status may be made but only by the owner of the property on which the tree stands.
Criteria includes historical significance, age, association with a person or event of communitywide significance, origination from an original native stand of California live oaks, sycamores or toyons and visibility from public corridors.
If the application is accepted, the tree must be maintained by the owner and may not be removed or substantially altered without a permit from the city.
Owners of trees on the South Laguna inventory are eligible to file applications.