Council looks to trim tree ordinance

If a tree falls in La Cañada Flintridge, there's a pretty good chance a city staffer will hear it. But officials are tweaking the city's tree ordinance, looking to make it easier for residents to work with local rules.

The moves the city is considering would both expand tree protections and ease them.

The Chinese elm, the subject of several recent enforcement actions, and California pepper tree would come off the protected list.

City staff — which now takes a deposit from homeowners and selects an arborist from a list of certified professionals to remove a protected tree — would allow residents to choose their own arborist off the list. The city may also give homeowners more say in trimming trees on public property that affect residences.

But any tree with a trunk more than 3 feet in diameter would go on the protected list, and residents would be required to get a permit before trimming any branch more than 8 inches in diameter.

Council members indicated support for most of the changes at a meeting Monday night, but sent the ordinance back to staff for revisions.

Officials say they are trying to balance the city's reputation as a tree-friendly place with property owners' rights. Arborists who work in the city say La Cañada does a good job of that while neighboring cities make life harder.

Whereas La Cañada's protected list may soon include just oaks, sycamores and deodars, Pasadena's list has 95 species, including 72 non-native trees.

Sierra Madre-based arborist Danny Osti said La Cañada is an easier city to work in than Pasadena, South Pasadena or unincorporated Altadena and Los Angeles County.

“Most of the times I've worked up [in La Cañada], I think they're fair,” Osti said. “South Pasadena, Glendale, L.A. County, Altadena — ridiculous.”

One example of the city's relative leniency: During construction, La Cañada requires listed trees be surrounded by a “protection zone” equal to 31/2 times the diameter of the tree's trunk to prevent root and soil damage.

The City Council is considering expanding the area to five times the trunk's diameter. But Pasadena and other cities measure the zone by the tree's “drip line,” requiring protection from the tree's trunk to the end of its canopy.

William McKinley, a consulting arborist on the city's ordinance, said La Cañada's tree regulations are significantly less restrictive than those in other communities.

“The other cities and county areas have a much larger protection zone,” McKinley said. “It doesn't mean you can't do work in those protection zones, but it means you need permits.”

Councilwoman Laura Olhasso said the city's main priority is to protect the city's leafy canopy while reducing miscommunication and conflict with residents.

“You try to strike that balance so you protect the trees without going crazy so homeowners can't do what they want on their property,” Olhasso said.

“And there's all sorts of different definitions of that balance.”

Pasadena-based tree trimmer Terry Chesbro said that while he likes working in La Cañada, better communication would be welcome.

“Some of my best clients are in La Cañada. It's an easier law to live with than with Pasadena or South Pasadena,” he said. “Every city reinvents the wheel, and that makes it really hard for professionals.”

Going forward, Olhasso said, the city hopes to make it simpler for residents to comply with the rules.

“I think helping to inform our residents better as to what's protected and what isn't, and what they need to do before they get their trees trimmed, we need to do a better job of that — and we will,” she said.

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