In a 4-1 vote, the council agreed with the staff’s recommendation over a year-long controversy about removing several of the towering gum trees due to disease, root instability, proximity to high-voltage utility poles and their potential as a fire hazard.
The council agreed to remove 11 out of 31 trees evaluated and replace them with five to 11 trees that are suitable to the local habitat. The motion also requires more regular trimming of all trees on city-owned property in Bluebird Canyon. The project is estimated to cost $35,000 and will come out of the city’s general fund.
Council member Toni Iseman originally dissented along with council member Verna Rollinger, saying to the applause of the mostly tree-supporting audience that maintaining the trees, not removing them, will keep them healthy and less of a hazard.
“I don’t know if I’m interested in planting more trees there,” Iseman said. “If we’re going to be spending money, spend money on properly maintaining the trees.”
Council member Verna Rollinger maintained her position to preserve the trees, casting the dissenting vote. She said she must not have been paying attention when the money was appropriated to study the trees. “I thought we were getting help so that we would take better care of them in the future than we have in the past,” she said. “I never expected the result that we got.”
The motion, made by council member Elizabeth Pearson, includes trimming four other eucalyptus trees in upper Bluebird Canyon. The 11 trees will be removed within the next 18 months.
With 27 residents speaking, most opposed to tree removal, one resident said it was not an issue of “tree lovers versus tree haters.”
Resident Susan Whiten said she removed three eucalyptus trees after one fell on a neighbors’ house during a December 2010 rainstorm that flooded Laguna. “I’m a landscape architect and I love trees,” said Whiten, “but I do not love 60-year-old eucalyptus trees that are weakened by drought, steep slopes and disease; in short, trees that can harm people. It’s delusional thinking that one of these trees couldn’t fall down and kill someone.”
Laguna Nursery owner Ruben Flores said he shares the concern for safety but found errors in the arborist’s report and disagreed with its findings. “Are we here to beautify Laguna and keep it green or are we here to glorify asphalt and…look at power poles?” Flores asked. The fault, he said, lies in the city’s poor maintenance. “That’s what’s happened to these beautiful giants, they are in disrepair and we’ve failed to take care of them correctly,” he said.
Steve Stewart, a Bluebird Canyon resident, said he was hired by the Festival of Arts a few years ago to clear-cut the eucalyptus trees inside the center courtyard. “I refused,” he said. “I took care of the trees and they’re now beautiful and I maintain them yearly.” Stewart recommended a second arborist’s opinion.
Southern California Edison recommended removing six trees a year ago but the city postponed the decision to obtain an arborist’s findings and more input from residents. Although the city is still requesting that Edison pay for the removal of two trees that are closest to power lines, the utility company’s liability to remove the trees expired last December. The trees were evaluated by arborist Ed Black of Tustin’s Black’s Tree Care.
“The trees recommended for removal threaten and imperil the health and safety of the public, and maintaining these trees would be inconsistent with good vegetation management,” the city report stated.
Chris Amodeo, who lives in Bluebird Canyon and whose home was recently missed by a falling eucalyptus, questioned the objectivity of a report from an arborist who runs a tree-trimming business. “Sounds like a rooster guarding the hen house,” he commented.
Amodeo and others against removing the trees suggested that the city’s funds would be better spent on undergrounding power lines in the neighborhood to lower potential safety risks. “We just experienced a fire because of the power lines; that seems to be a more immediate thing to consider,” he said.
In a second Bluebird Canyon matter, Andrew Soliz, a Native American who built and uses a sweat lodge in his backyard, requested a full refund of nearly $2,000 in fines and fees that resulted from enforcement actions over the structure prompted by complaints from neighbors last spring.
Soliz’ traditional willow-branch sweat lodge later received approval from the city’s design review board.
After Soliz and Carrie Woodburn, who owns the home where the sweat lodge is located, left the meeting, City Manager John Pietig said a letter was sent to their residence explaining the terms of a refund.
Fred Fix, the city’s code enforcement officer, said fees and fines totaling $2,000 were voided for a tipi that was also erected in Soliz’s and Woodburn’s backyard but removed at the city’s request. A $1,000 fine on the sweat lodge was not voided, Fix said, because Soliz and Woodburn missed a deadline to apply for review of the sweat lodge to determine its compatibility with city building codes. Telephone calls to Soliz following the meeting were not returned.
Soliz told the council Tuesday that willow-branch sweat lodges are part of traditional spiritual practices and thus enjoy constitutional religious protections. Soliz said he would like to take his tipi to Top of the World School as an exhibit for children during lessons on Native American history.