By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
At its Tuesday meeting, the Laguna Beach City Council voted to cut the 135-year old tree to a “tall stump” to prevent it from falling and to plant an additional pepper tree at a cost of $40,000 on the grounds to fill the space.
“I tell you this breaks my heart, and I am sure everybody in this room feels the same way,” said consulting landscape architect Bob Borthwick.
In an emotional discussion over the tree’s fate, the council listened to evidence from city staff detailing the tree’s instability. Public works officials told the council that sonic tomography testing, or testing done to measure solid mass with sound waves, shows the tree is now 90% hollow. Arborists brought in to asses the tree’s health recommended it be removed to prevent it from spontaneously toppling and injuring someone.
The tree dates back to around 1881, when homesteader George Rogers bought a 155 1⁄2 acre homestead that spanned from Laguna Canyon through downtown to Main Beach, according to the Laguna Beach Historical Society. Rogers and his wife lived in a ranch house where the City Hall now stands, and that’s where Rogers and his daughter planted the pepper tree in 1885. The ranch house owners included Joseph Thurston and the Woman’s Club, which sold it to the city for $27,000, with the condition that tree be preserved, according to “The First 100 Years in Laguna Beach,” published in 1976 by Merle and Joseph Ramsey.
The lighting of the pepper tree is also an annual tradition during the city’s Hospitality Night, where hundreds gather in Whoville-style as the tree is lit to officially start the holiday season in Laguna Beach.
Due to the amount of decay within the tree, it is not predictable how or where it would fail, said Dale Schuck, deputy director of public works. “One of the problems with trees this size, they don’t always just fall. They do strange things. They can fall and bounce.“
In 2016, the city retained landscape architects BGB Design Group to survey the health of seven city trees, including the pepper tree. The assessment deemed the pepper tree had many hollow voids, and was not structurally sound. Since then, concrete and polyurethane foam has been poured into the tree’s hollows to stabilize it. But, like a tooth continuing to rot around its amalgam fillings, the pepper tree essentially needs a root canal.
“This level of decay presents an imminent risk the tree could fall,” Schuck said.
“It’s been around for 135 years. If my math is right, that was the year Franklin Roosevelt was born,” councilmember Steve Dicterow said.
A tree’s fall zone is measured as one-and-a-half times its height. Under that formula, the 36 –foot tall pepper tree would have a fall zone that would not only include the sidewalk into city hall, but also includes the metered street parking spaces in front of the building.
City staff met with the design engineer to talk about different options available to save the tree. One option was to build a pedestrian protection structure over the sidewalk into city hall. That plan was rejected as impractical due to the size, cost and time to build. The footings for such a structure were also deemed to possibly affect the tree’s roots. Some in attendance asked the council for more time to talk about options to save the tree.
“I wish I had a cure,” said landscape architect Ann Christoph, part of the volunteer committee offering the city input on the tree’s fate. “I think we have to think about how much we care about this tree. Do we care enough to walk around further to get into city hall for a while to work this out?”
The council compromised on a hybrid of both the second and third options: cut the the tree back as far as possible to reduce its reach should it fall, and add an additional mature pepper tree to the space.
“My main concern is public safety,” said Boyd. “You can put a fence around a tree, but if it’s gonna go, it’s gonna go. That doesn’t mean somebody can’t get hurt by it. That concerns me.”
Council members were adamant the cut-back and planting of the replacement tree happen simultaneously to reduce public shock.
“Even if it is whittled down to a stump, I want to keep that tree so long it’s alive,” Dicterow said.
The old pepper tree will be cut back and a new one brought in within the next four to six weeks. Until then, tape will be placed around the tree’s base to keep people out of the fall zone.
“There is a great deal of emotional attachment to this tree and it is an important tree,” Borthwick said. “But it’s got blood in its veins and it’s still part of our legacy.”