Destruction of Landmark Trees Prompts Policy Debate

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By Marilynn Young | LB Indy

Two stately, historic trees that for decades shaded a courtyard enclosed by retail shops were mostly cut down last week under a city issued permit until an elected official intervened.

One of the towering blue gum Eucalyptus trees in Lumberyard Mall was removed completely while one stump remains of the second double-trunk tree.

Cutting of a landmark eucalyptus tree in the Lumberyard Mall on Forest Avenue came to a halt after intervention by council members. Photo by Marilynn Young.
Cutting of a landmark eucalyptus tree in the Lumberyard Mall on Forest Avenue came to a halt after intervention by council members. Photos by Marilynn Young.

Believed to have been planted in 1879 by Laguna Beach homesteaders Henry and George Rogers, landscape designer Ruben Flores estimated the trees were 80 feet tall and 30 inches in diameter.

Registered consulting arborist Lisa Smith visually inspected the trees and detected signs of disease and decay and recommended in a March 15 report their immediate removal due to the risk to the property, according to the landowner’s representative, Koss Financial Corporation of Los Angeles.

In a letter this week to city officials, Johanna Felder, president of Village Laguna, a group that values preservation, described feeling “stunned at the destruction,” of trees whose size and stature made them candidates for protection under the city’s heritage tree ordinance.

Onlookers watch as crews cut sections from the massive tree.
Onlookers watch as crews cut sections from the massive tree.

Felder criticized the process under which the emergency permits were issued. “We do not believe the staff applied due diligence to making this decision,” she said, pointing out the lack of public notice that would normally accompany the removal of such a large tree.

In a written response, City Manager John Pietig said he shared her concerns about the city’s process to determine how to handle diseased or damaged trees. “City staff are working on options for consideration by the City Council,” he said.

Community Development Director Greg Pfost granted permits for the emergency removal of the trees based on the findings of two arborists. In an interview, he said that due to the potential controversy over removing landmark trees and the immediacy of the request, the city sought a second opinion from arborist, Eric Gorsuch of V & E Tree Service in Orange, who reached the same conclusion as the property manager’s arborist, said Pfost.

Last year, Urth Caffé’s property owner also consulted with Gorsuch about removing a diseased eucalyptus encroaching on a right of way. In approving the permit last Nov. 3, the summary noted that council members are informed because of anticipated controversy over removing a large tree.

Lumberyard property manager Matt Morris hired Supreme Tree Experts of Santa Ana, which began using chain

The trees prior to the permits being issued. Photo by Ann Christoph
The trees prior to the permits being issued. Photo by Ann Christoph

saws and a cherry picker to cut the trees Friday, April 1.

Midway through the job, Council members Steve Dicterow and Toni Iseman intervened, with Iseman personally visiting the scene and requesting a halt due to questions about the permit process and the arborist reports.

Morris agreed and the work ceased.

As no soil samples were taken around the trees, a third arborist will be hired by the city to do a more extensive study, Pfost said. If the remaining trees are disease free, city staff will ask the property managers to agree to allow the trees continue to grow back, said Assistant City Manager Christa Johnson.

“Normally, removal or modification of landscaping would require Planning Commission Design Review,” Ann Larson, assistant director of community development, said in an email to the city manager and others.

Though last week Morris said he intended to replace the trees, he declined to discuss the matter in a later interview and referred comment to company owner, Michael Koss. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Pfost said the city’s ordinance does not protect a historic tree on private property. Only after a property owner requests Heritage tree status can the city play a role in protecting its removal, he said. Trees on public property and deemed Heritage trees are protected from removal or vandalism, he said.

Beverly Walker, who operates the Flower Stand next to the towering trees, watched as chain saws whittled down

A worker moves a section of the trunk of a eucalyptus tree partly cut down.
A worker moves a section of the trunk of a eucalyptus tree partly cut down.

the trunk in sections. “I’m horrified. I hope that it will regrow. I think it will.”

George Nelson, owner of Fawn Memories, said, “one of them was definitely diseased. The other one, I don’t know. I’m not a professional.”

Landscape architect Ann Christoph asked, “Do we want to live our lives without trees because they might fall? This doesn’t represent Laguna’s character,” she said, adding that Pietig assured her he will establish procedures to evaluate future requests to cut trees.

The City Council is tentatively scheduled to take up the matter at its April 19 meeting.

Correction appended April 9: The story should have included a description of Ann Christoph as a former mayor and Indy columnist.  

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Preserving the trees on site was a Mitigation Measure required for approval of the original shopping center conversion from the lumberyard. Check the file!

  2. The trees in question were all planted in 1974 or 1975 when the Lumberyard Plaza was built. All the original trees were removed at the time of development. I have photos that show all of this.

  3. The trees were planted as part of the landscape plan in 1974 or 1975.
    The original trees on the property were cut down during demolition and grading of the property in 1974.

  4. During the burn dump restoration project a 20 year old sycamore (mitigation for habitat destruction during new bridge construction in the ’90’s) and three 60 year old California Peppers were removed to allow clearance for construction traffic. The Peppers provided shade for the existing house that will be the new Laguna Canyon Foundation Headquarters. Branch trimming would have spared these trees which are now gone forever. This was on City owned open space. I doubt an arborist was called in and if neighbors had been consulted we would have advised that trimming was preferable. I hope this isn’t a pattern we’re seeing and that the review of policy brings local input into these hastily made, irreversible decisions!

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