A Fair Trial?
Who deserves a fair trial? I was surprised to read an opinion by Jeff Sebo in the Los Angeles Times, Oct. 23 edition that posited that elephants deserve a fair trial to determine how they would live out their lives in captivity.
If granted, a hearing at the California Supreme Court would determine whether three elephants in the Fresno Zoo are being unjustly detained, and whether they should be relocated to a sanctuary.
But as I thought about it, I wondered why only human lives, even those accused of terrible crimes, are considered so precious that elaborate laws are in place to ensure that they are not taken unjustly. There are rules of evidence, forensic analysis, DNA testing and tomes of legal precedent that guide the determination of guilt, innocence and punishment. Yet the lives of other beings can be taken almost arbitrarily with barely a shrug.
This happened at Tuesday’s council meeting, where three council members voted to execute an iconic lemon-scented gum tree at 387 El Camino del Mar based on incomplete and circumstantial evidence. The tree is part of a magnificent circle of trees at the roundabout in the El Mirador neighborhood, a memorable landmark for our whole town, not just the immediate area.
In spring of 2021, Matthew Barker, our city arborist, observed that work was underway to reconstruct a sidewalk next to the subject tree. He directed that the contractor prune roots to allow for the new section of sidewalk to go in. But he did not stay to witness how that pruning was done. He says that afterward, he saw roots that had been removed, but he did not photograph them or describe them.
More than two years later, neighbors voiced concern about potential property damage and danger if the tree were to fail. Arborist Barker observed a “steady decline in crown vigor…which can indicate root dysfunction.” In June 2023, he prepared a report recommending removal of the tree “in the interest of public safety.” The agenda bill states that “the existing root system appears to have been damaged or severed, most likely during the sidewalk repair work resulting in the decline of the tree’s health.” The evidence? Sparse foliage in the crown of the tree in Barker’s July 2023 photo. The problem with that evidence is that the tree foliage is much improved now—recent photographs of a fully leafed-out tree were submitted. So, the speculated root damage that “most likely” happened may not have occurred at all, or the tree may have recovered from it. We don’t know. But that was enough evidence for council members Alex Rounaghi, Sue Kempf and Bob Whalen to convict and order the tree removed.
More evidence could have been obtained. The council could have consulted with the well-qualified arborist, Peter Harnisch, who submitted a second opinion. They could have commissioned a Phase III (more in-depth) analysis of the condition of the tree. Ground penetrating radar is available to assess the root structure so that we would have evidence of root damage or recovery.
In addition, they could have weighed other obvious evidence—that the tree has survived two years of storms, including Hurricane Hilary, since the sidewalk construction without failure. Harnisch states, “Lemon-scented gums are not normally prone to whole tree failure” and we have evidence of that in the tall standing rows of lemon-scented gums on Broadway and those others surrounding the roundabout, none of which have fallen.
Council members George Weiss and Mark Orgill voted against removal and maintained that more study should be done. “The tree deserves this. The community deserves this,” Weiss insisted.
Mayor Bob Whalen conceded that perhaps a Phase III study should be done in the future for other trees–but in the meantime, this tree will be dead, and the circle of trees will be broken.
This was not a fair trial. The city’s arborist had all the closing arguments. He dismissed other comments and maintained that because his opinion was correct, the suggested additional research was unneeded. Meantime, the tree defense team had to remain silent, watching their “client” tree being condemned to death and our community being diminished because of the loss.
Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She is also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.