Opinion: Village Matters


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.   

The lemon-scented gum tree at 387 El Camino del Mar. Photo/Ann Christoph

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.

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  1. First of all Ann I Love your picture it really looks great, Wow on the eye color! this poor tree was consumed simply by a jury of 3, we are back to the usual..I think also that the Arborist should have been backed up by a 2nd opinion, what a waste of beauty! Not a good decision. It is interesting that the Arborist sounded so much like the Mayor, He dismissed other comments or concerns because he was right..then naturally we get the other 2 votes…sad

  2. I understand this is an opinion peice but this is one of the silliest articles I’ve read to date.

    Imagine being so bored, comfy and privileged that you decide the hill to die on in this crazy world would be the removal of a tree that’s a very real potential hazard because it’ll make the street “less pretty”. This kinda behavior is akin to people being upset at the “wrong” family moving in next door and is such silly and problematic behavior. Grow up.

  3. It is odd that our City continues to remove trees when globally communities are planting more trees to produce shade for pedestrians and reduce the heat of concrete or cement streets and surfaces as global temperatures rise. As the follow-up Santa Rosa fire studies showed the increased heat of the tree-sparce downtown streets amplified the ability of flying embers to catch on street debris and produce those whirling fire balls that took out the downtown buildings. One would think that our fire-prone community would consider what happened to Santa Rosa when planning changes to our downtown and neighborhoods. And, not to be snarky, but didn’t the house behind the lemon-scented gum tree look a tad crooked in the City’s submitted shot of the tree as if the camera was held at an angle?

    Editor’s Note: Deborah is the spouse of Councilmember George Weiss and Publisher of Methodology and Statistics of Guilford Publications, Inc.

  4. “Heat Islands” as they’re called are serious controversies, up front & center in my industry: The world of adverse Enviro-impacts where it meets water.
    Yards were torn up, trees removed and now that’s being revisited, some utilities gave refunds or provided economic incentives.
    The thinking is being walked backed, reversed somewhat, science-based evidence providing greater wisdom and tactics.
    Xeriscape achievement, basically desert-like landscape in urbanized areas, is especially getting revisioned:
    For example, US native Buffalo Grass only needs 1/3 of the water that most grasses require, it’s low maintenance, drought tolerant. It actually thrives and is relatively weed free if not over-watered. If you’ve traveled the western plains (New Mexico to Montana), you’ve seen it in abundance.
    Turns out all of that synthetic turf replacement idea was not so swift, it contains and then sloughs off (both aerial particulates and runoff dispersion during rain) plastics, PFAs and other toxic Contaminants of Concern, many being banned globally.
    So inhaling, or our aquatics ingesting the microscopic detritus, is actually hazardous both acutely and chronically.
    That means the entire food chain is effected, including humans through bio-magnification, so eating seafood becomes hazardous—kind of like our understanding of mercury, now ubiquitous in both streams, lakes and ocean-caught critters. Fish, lobster, crab, scallops, whatever.
    Trees? Native trees don’t just provide cooling shade, keep ambient oxygen levels up, provide foraging and nesting habitat for native avian species, but cut down on the carbon footprint of air-conditioning.
    We sometimes forget that here in Laguna, it seldom requires the use of it, many homes are built or remodeled without it as my nearly 40 years as a GC reflected: But there are many who have allergies, need it.
    I just open a few windows myself, but try to keep the general welfare of your neighbors in mind, huh? Your impact or responsibility doesn’t end at your property line, k?
    As a sub-contractor, as a consultant/advisor to a new home being proposed near Mozambique about 10 years ago, I designed for mitigation a “grey water system” for the vendor’s client.
    Capturing shower/tub and laundry water in easy-to-install parallel drainage system, stored in a sizable barrel in a small closet next to the garage, then using solar to pump it energy-free, it could be dispersed 6″ below the surface to percolate (I think that was the State code standard) over the property, larger amounts directed to planter beds and native trees (definitely NOT eucalyptus).
    Any excess is strained, naturally cleansed by soil before migrating.
    Stats on these things indicate that we use at least 50% of our water outdoors—–Hence you can keep a nice, eco-friendly yard AND be water-wise, conserve as your part of the usage reduction equation.

  5. Thanks, Roger, for providing the word for concrete/cement downtowns and landscapes that can catch fire easier: Heat Islands. It’s something to keep in mind when the City is planning to revise the downtown landscaping and assess fire risks to our neighborhoods. Great tips about buffalo grass, and particularly the recapture and reuse of water via a grey water system. I’ve wondered for a long time if the City could provide incentives for home owners and commercial businesses and developers to install catch basins, grey water systems, etc. to reduce our community’s fire risks. As our fire risks and insurance costs climb along with temperatures it would be a win/win for those who live or do business in Laguna Beach and our City’s costs—as well as our beautiful environment.

    Editor’s Note: Deborah is the spouse of council member George Weiss and publisher of Methodology and Statistics of Guilford Publications, Inc.

  6. You’re welcome, Ms. Laughton!
    Clean Water Now took Rancho Mission Viejo to the woodshed over 15 years ago…we discovered that for a thousand $$$ or so, they could have built their multi-phase (14,000 residences) development with such a parallel grey water system in each unit (buried in the walls but easily connected) but they didn’t make conservation an integral element.
    Half-way to full buildout now, in spite of drought cycles, they never pre-installed the parallel plumbing, setting the stage for ez-pz completion if a homeowner wanted it as an option.
    Naturally, several people asked why I left those big, thick plastic, touted rain barrels, that capture excess rainfall from your roofing system via gutters and downspouts?
    (1) That first significant rain event, that in essence scrubs or rinses your roof? Like the “first flush” of a storm drain system, it migrates/sloughs high concentrations of possibly hazardous contaminants. So it can be toxic for your landscape. You’d want to block the barrel intake just in case, plus keep the light tightly shut.
    (2) Usually in the 50-55 gallon range, remember that’s 8.33 lbs/gallon, so well over 400 lbs. As a retired builder, I can attest to the fact that a wood deck wouldn’t be an ideal site for it. And not a pre-fab, lightweight concrete pad but a poured slab, k?
    (3) If you want to avoid needing a solar powered, slave pump dispersion system like the one I mentioned before, then it needs to use a natural, gravity fed drain system. One with a gate valve btw. And it’d need to be higher than the area you’re sending it too. With a spigot valve, you or the family can use buckets or watering jugs for spot watering.
    (4) Interesting, but the water (hydrostatic pressure) does the work, obviously the more water in the catchment device, the stronger the force exerted. Here at sea level, air is exerting 14.5 pounds/sq. inch on us already, we don’t feel it as our bodies are pressing outward with about the same force, equalizing it.
    (5) And for you, your family and your neighbor’s sake, just pour in about 1 oz. of non-scented (unadulterated) bleach occasionally. This keeps the water odor-free, sterilized, avoiding turning it into a mosquito vector, other airborne pests. Doesn’t harm your plants.
    (6) If you find that you’re storing the inventory too long anyway, getting minor algae growths, rinse/scrub it out from time to time, and another weird trick is an itsy amount of olive oil. Larvae literally drown, whodathunkit?
    Our surprise July event might have already been your roof’s first flush, looks like mid-November (next week) we’ll be getting significant rain to finish the job.
    These tips are all available online, use the procedures you feel best suit your yard, your habits and your conservation comfort zone.


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