By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
Laguna Beach was criticized by the Orange County Grand Jury as one of eight Orange County cities with a relatively low number of publicly-owned street trees, according to a report published last week.
In the June 20 report titled, “Orange County’s Urban Forest,” the Grand Jury reported that Laguna Beach has 12 street trees for every 100 residents, which puts the city in the bottom third of Orange County cities—below Santa Ana, Orange, and Garden Grove. In terms of the percentage of annual city budgets spent on street trees, Laguna Beach ranked in the bottom half of cities, spending 0.52 percent of its operating budget on trees—below Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano, and Brea.
The report touts the many economic, public health, environmental benefits of cities investing in the urban forest.
“In spite of these benefits, many California cities do not consider the urban forest program to be as important as other public improvements such as streets, storm drains and city buildings,” the Grand Jury wrote. “In general, city officials have made little effort to measure the financial impact of the local urban forest or the energy and water savings that trees generate.”
Neighborhoods without trees providing shade see higher temperatures, which drives up the energy costs from air conditioning. Trees also help capture stormwater that percolates through the ground and recharges the aquifer, the report said.
Despite the criticism directed at Laguna Beach and other Orange County cities, the Grand Jury acknowledged cities face circumstances outside of their control. For example, smaller cities that lack parkways have less space to plant significant numbers of new trees.
Climate change has also wreaked havoc on the urban forest because of water conservation mandates and invasive pests like the shot hole borer.
The Grand Jury recommended that cities continue regular tree inspection and maintenance, implement a program to coordinate with nonprofit and volunteer organizations to improve residents’ awareness of urban forest benefits, and explore ways to improve their tree count.
Two days before the Grand Jury published its reports, the Laguna Beach City Council allocated $147,200 from its 2019-20 budget to hire a full-time city arborist. Another $40,000 was budgeted for a vehicle and equipment.
The City Council’s goal is to have an impartial arbiter to rule on the health of street trees to avoid the headache of hearing from arborists hired by private citizens to advocate for or against a tree’s demise.
“One of the main tasks for the incoming city arborist will be to interface with the public, with advocacy groups, with other agencies and other city divisions on urban forestry issues,” said Shohreh Dupuis, assistant city manager and director of public works.
The city disagrees with the Grand Jury’s finding that Orange County cities reported minimal liabilities from tripping hazards, roots intruding sewer and water lines, and falling branches and trees. Laguna Beach has paid claims for injuries related to tripping hazards and is currently defending itself from other tripping hazards caused by tree roots, Dupuis said.
Laguna Beach is also spending between $50,000 and $100,000 per year on tree root mitigation work from grinding raised sidewalks, slant cutting sidewalk offsets, repair of decorative tree wells, and the installation of ADA compliant resilient rubber tree wells downtown.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph is one of the tree advocates who has been lobbying the city to maintain mature trees in its urban forest and replace every tree that’s chopped down for public health and safety reasons.
“The attitude of some of the decision makers in our city is, let’s have as few trees as small as possible,” she said.
The Grand Jury shared many of the same opinions about the benefits of a healthy urban forest that Christoph has championed at council meetings for years. Among these is the fact the planting trees helps absorb carbon dioxide and therefore mitigates climate change.
“I think it’s wonderful because it offers a perspective we haven’t had,” she said.
Christoph was a member of the consultant team that was hired to update the Landscape and Scenic Highways Element, which among other things, provided city staff with policy for the installation of landscaping along the city’s major corridors and the preservation of heritage trees. The process to adopt this document took five years.
It took relentless lobbying from the city’s tree advocates to push the city to replace 30 trees downtown that were removed after they died or were hit by a car, Christoph said. However, Dupuis argues the city has always been committed to replacing the downtown trees and simply wanted to complete its planning process before planting new trees.
“Originally, the city had decided to wait to replace trees in the downtown until this document was updated since there were community debates regarding the replacement species,” Dupuis said. “In lieu of waiting for the report to be approved, last year the Department of Public Works took a project to the Planning Commission and City Council to replace over 30 street trees in the downtown and Coast Highway corridors.”
Barbara MacGillivray co-founded the Laguna Beach Urban Tree Fund last year with her husband Greg through a $50,000 endowment. The fund was established the city’s tree replacement program through grants. MacGillivray said she’s excited that the city plans to hire a full-time arborist, who will hopefully bring an end to the acrimony city staffers face when they propose removing street trees.
She admits that there will still be some homeowners who will oppose planting new trees that block their views, regardless of the evidence that trees provide public benefits.
“The thing that most excited us is that the Grand Jury took upon themselves to look into this, and clearly there is a value associated with our trees and green cover,” she said. “I think we’ve been able to make some real progress.”