LA CRESCENTA — Residents have mobilized to save a 100-year-old tree along Foothill Boulevard that they say could be irreparably harmed by a planned mixed-use office building.
Several dozen residents gathered Tuesday evening in front of the massive Moreton Bay Fig tree in the 2600 block of Foothill Boulevard to protest a planned three-story retail and office building on the adjacent vacant lot.
Residents say they are concerned that the excavation will result in extensive damage to the tree's root systems, in addition to the many branches that will have to be cut. When a previous development was planned for the site, an arborist warned that damage to the roots could kill the tree, stakeholders said.
While many involved said they are also opposed to the project because of its size, the potential loss of the historic tree has become the flashpoint.
"It's heartache when you are seeing parts of your history being destroyed," said Lisa Jenks, a lifelong Crescenta Valley resident who brought her children to the protest.
Residents said they were blindsided when excavation began on the site a few weeks ago to make way for the 29,000-square-foot building and subterranean parking garage.
"With all the community angst and focus that's been on Foothill, you would think they would give us a heads up," said Mike Lawler, president of the Historical Society of Crescenta Valley and an organizer of the protest. "But they didn't. We didn't know until the bulldozers showed up."
But officials from the Los Angeles County Office of Regional Planning, which approved the project, said that because it did not require any zoning variances or use permits, public hearings and notification were not required.
The project is exempt from new design standards for Foothill Boulevard adopted last year by the county Board of Supervisors since it was approved months before the standards went into effect.
And officials said potential harm to the tree could not be taken into account since there are no laws protecting Fig trees.
"We don't like to see trees removed, but we're not above the regulations," said John Gutwein, acting deputy director of the county's Land Use Regulation division. "We are supposed to follow the rules that are in place."
With that in mind, Crescenta Valley Town Council President Cheryl Davis and Town Councilman Frank Beyt met with owner Gevorg Voskanian to discuss the community concerns.
"He says he doesn't wish to harm the tree or upset the community," she said. "He said when they get close to the roots, they will call and consult with an arborist."
Project Architect Varoozh Saroian — who designed the failed project slated for the former Foothill Lumber site in the Glendale portion of the boulevard — said he had also heard precautions would be taken.
Still, Lawler said he was concerned the tree could be a "lost cause" and noted that Voskanian had previously ignored community concerns when he demolished the oldest home in Montrose in 2008.
"If the roots are cut as proposed," he said, "I think the tree will die."