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Money doesn’t grow on trees in Laguna: Costs delay decision on rules for trimming

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A 50-foot eucalyptus tree next to Urth Caffe prompted recent talk of city tree procedures in Laguna. A decision on its fate has not been made.
(Don Leach / File photo)

The Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday delayed voting on whether to add to existing rules regarding the trimming and removal of trees deemed the responsibility of the city until it knows more about the associated costs.

The council, though, appeared receptive in theory to two staff recommendations. One focuses on requests for maintenance of trees in areas identified on maps but not deemed official city property. This could prove costly if it involves title searches and surveys to determine who owns the land.

The second proposal concerns requests for the removal or trimming of a city tree that the complaining party says is blocking his or her view of the surrounding landscape. This could prove costly because, as Councilman Bob Whalen said, there would be ongoing maintenance costs to keep the tree from growing back into sightlines.

In the latter case, if excessive trimming is required, an arborist would be called in. According to the suggested policy, the requester would pay the bill, which the city said could range from $1,000 to $5,000 depending on the type of tree, its age and size.

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Whalen said the city should follow Laguna’s view preservation and restoration ordinance, which applies to private property. In these cases, the owner of the vegetation in question must pay for ongoing trimming.

“If you want to put it on a parallel, perhaps the requester pays the first time,” Whalen said. “The city should maintain on the restored view and not let it go back to what it was.

“I don’t know why we would exempt ourselves. That would fit with the good-neighbor policy.”

Landscape architect Ann Christoph said she was largely satisfied with the staff recommendations but complained that under the proposal concerning views, there is “no criteria for evaluating view info.”

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“In our private ordinance, we have to have the applicant prove they had a view,” she said. “This has no provision [to prove] they had a view before. It opens it up to say, ‘Oh, I could have a view there. Let’s cut the public tree down.’”

Laguna budgeted $218,400 in fiscal year 2016-17 for maintenance of its 2,745 trees. The cost includes $160,000 for trimming and $58,400 for other expenses such as replanting, removal and pest control, according to a staff report.

Under the staff proposal regarding maintenance requests of trees in areas not considered official city property, a person would need to submit a request to the city, after which an arborist would inspect the tree’s overall health.

The council would decide whether the tree should be maintained by the city or property owner.

Any determination would hinge on verifying that the tree stood on property void of city responsibility.

But Whalen requested clarification about what would be done if uncertainty arose about the land’s rightful owner.

At the meeting, city staff said a title search could cost $400 and a survey to determine who is legally responsible for the tree could cost $2,500.

Laguna doesn’t have a list of the trees located on such gray-area land, City Manager John Pietig said.

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In April, the council adopted a policy that requires a thorough vetting of a city tree’s health before a decision is made regarding whether it should be removed. This process could include an arborists’ analysis and an on-site meeting to gather public input.

Tree advocates cried foul this year when the city removed a eucalyptus tree in the Lumberyard mall area that experts said was at risk of falling.

And what prompted this recent deliberation of city tree procedures is an ailing, 50-foot eucalyptus next to Urth Caffe, at 308 N. Coast Hwy. A decision on its fate still has not been made, though the tree was given about three months to show some signs of recovery after an arborist initially looked at it.

City trees are trimmed either yearly or biannually, depending on the species and growing characteristics.

The three most prevalent species are Mexican fan palm, California sycamore and coast live oak, the staff report said.

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce


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