A towering pine rooted in a South Laguna slope was removed this week to make way for an extensive home addition following a decision by Laguna Beach’s City Council in August to effectively invalidate special protections for heritage trees in the formerly unincorporated area.
Neighbors of Carol Chua’s property on Sunset Avenue gathered outside as if for a wake on Wednesday. “I respect her decision; it’s not my tree,” said Cynthia Jenkins, whose home was most impacted, stripped of shade by the tree’s majestic canopy. Her 8-year-old son Benji cried for 90 minutes when he saw the denuded space after coming home from school on Tuesday.
“A truly magnificent gift of nature has been removed for no good reason,” said Jenkins’ neighbor, Bernard Tranel, an assertion the property owner disputed. “May the mistake of cutting it down make everyone realize how important it is to save other beautiful trees, which embellish our city,” Tranel said in a letter addressed to the City Council.
Even before tree cutters arrived, the South Laguna Civic Association filed a protest on Aug. 31 with the California Coastal Commission, calling for intervention over the city’s action to resolve the disputed status of South Laguna’s mature trees. The association asked the commission to halt the City Council’s Aug. 20 action, which denied granting heritage status for about 100 trees listed on an inventory included in the South Laguna specific plan prior to incorporation in 1989. To preserve trees of character, beauty and history, the city’s municipal code allows owners to seek heritage status for trees, which when granted, requires permit approval to alter or remove them.
However, the city’s action redefining the status of the trees is a “substantial decision” that requires amending Laguna’s coastal plan, which also requires review and approval by the Coastal Commission, association vice president Greg O’Loughlin said in a letter to the commission.
City Manager John Pietig said Wednesday he had yet to see the protest and declined to comment on its merits until he had. He did agree, though, that conflicting documentation over whether South Laguna’s trees enjoy special protections made the matter confusing. “The information is not clear and that’s why there is disagreement,” he said.
Coastal Commission analyst John Delarroz could not be reached for comment.
The association’s protest was filed to satisfy the commission’s appeal period, though its urgency became apparent when the landmark pine tree was felled, said O’Loughlin.
Chua, a real estate broker in Pasadena, purchased the Sunset Avenue property for a second home last year. She said the huge pine was removed because it was top heavy, broke sewer lines and was a fire hazard because of its proximity to the current structure, occupied by tenants. “Maybe I’m paranoid,” said Chua, whose son and husband were nearly crushed by a tree that fell on their car in a 1996 windstorm in Altadena. “I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” she said, in deciding the pine’s fate, adding that to wait for the tree to damage property or harm someone would be “negligent.”
Her insurer had also threatened cancelation if the tree overshadowing the existing complex was not removed. Its possible heritage designation could inhibit her ability to comply with the insurer’s demand, she told the City Council last month.
In pleading with coastal authorities to exert its authority over South Laguna’s heritage trees, the Civic Association cites design and landscape guidelines, approved in 1989 as part of South Laguna’s incorporation, that include inventories of heritage homes and trees.
“The council was advised the county didn’t have a tree program,” O’Loughlin said, referring to a staff report supporting last month’s vote. “That’s the lie,” he said.
In an Aug. 18 letter to council members, association president Bill Rihn wrote that the council’s decision to demote South Laguna trees to “candidates” for heritage status contradicts its previous practices, such as a citation issued to a Second Avenue homeowner in 2009 for removing a heritage tree.
Pietig counters with a contradictory example in 2011, where the council was consulted and approved heritage status for a tree near Aliso Creek, which he says demonstrated the tree lacked heritage standing previously.
During the debate last month, City Attorney Phil Kohn argued that it wasn’t clear South Laguna property owners were informed of the prohibitions and restrictions on maintenance of heritage trees at the time they were placed on the inventory. To impose such restrictions on the owners of the debated trees without their consent could be a violation of due process, he said.
“The city’s questioning the status of South Laguna’s heritage trees now, over 25 years from annexation, is arbitrary,” James J. Josephs, the association’s attorney, wrote to the council in July. “Nothing in the action the council took when adopting the list in 1989 indicates any difference in the status of South Laguna heritage trees compared to those in the rest of the city,” he said.
“We’re still on the other side of the tracks,” O’Loughlin added.