South Laguna’s Trees Lose Heritage Standing

An attempt to clarify the murky status of a list of mature South Laguna trees culminated with the City Council deciding Tuesday against extending to them the city’s special heritage designation, which confers certain preservation protections.

The 3-1 vote, with Council member Toni Iseman dissenting and Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson absent, dashed the hopes of the South Laguna Civic Association, which urged the council to confer heritage status on trees compiled on a list before South Laguna was incorporated in 1987.

In order to preserve trees of beauty, character and history, the municipal code lets property owners seek heritage status for their trees, provided the tree meets criteria that include distinctive characteristics, age greater than 50 years, scenic prominence and community significance.

Association members argued that South Laguna’s heritage trees automatically became city heritage trees once the council in 1989 approved the South Laguna Specific Plan, which referenced the inventory list.

Eight residents argued this point Tuesday night, including Becky Jones who was on the planning commission during the annexation process. She claimed planners intended that the inventory of South Laguna heritage trees be accepted as city heritage trees. “We need to give those trees … the same protection enjoyed by the city tree list at that time,” she implored, adding, “to do less would be betrayal, indeed.”

But the staff report includes documents indicating that the inventory was retained only as a “guideline document,” and Planning Manager Ann Larson cited evidence that the city considered those trees only as candidates for heritage status, meaning that they met the criteria but that the property owners would have to follow the process to obtain such a status as outlined in the municipal code.

The process for obtaining heritage status and for removing that designation from a tree requires notifying property owners within 300 feet and a majority vote of the City Council. Once heritage status is conferred on a tree, it cannot be significantly altered or removed without a permit, nor can a property owner build  within 15 feet of its trunk.

Trees placed on the South Laguna inventory didn’t come with the same prohibitions and restrictions on their maintenance and removal as the city heritage trees, and it is not clear property owners understood this at the time of annexation, City Attorney Phil Kohn said. To impose such property rights restrictions without certainty of the owner’s consent, contrary to the terms of the current ordinance, could be a violation of due process, Kohn and Larson seemed to agree.

Illustrating that point, resident Carol Chua said no mention of a heritage tree was cited in disclosures when she acquired property last year. She recently received notification that her insurance would be canceled if she did not remove a tree identified by the insurer as a risk. Chua was surprised to learn the potential heritage designation of her tree through no action of her own could inhibit her ability to comply with the insurer’s demand.

Resident Andrea Paddock said that since she received notice that a tree she called a cause of “constant tension and distress because of poor trimming” might be a heritage tree “I am afraid to even rake under the tree” for fear of breaking one of the rules. “Who will be responsible when it falls on someone?” she asked, since the unstable tree threatens her neighbors’ safety.

“This is a really tough issue because it ultimately is a historical question,” commented Council member Steve Dicterow. “The real question is what happened at the time of the annexation. Were they being treated as heritage trees or not?” Dicterow pointed to evidence that at least some planners at the time thought they were, while Mayor Kelly Boyd pointed out that others believed otherwise.

Council member Bob Whalen concluded the inventory “should be respected and given meaning” but that it did not fit within the meaning of the city’s heritage tree ordinance. Among other documents, he cited a 1991 memo from then director of community development, Kyle Butterwick that said, “The [South Laguna heritage tree] Inventory identifies trees that are important to South Laguna and that should be preserved whenever possible. It should be noted that this designation is not the same as the City’s Heritage Tree designation. Trees identified on the South Laguna Heritage Tree Inventory are not subject to the City’s Heritage Tree Ordinance without first being nominated and approved as a City Heritage Tree by the City Council.”

Whalen suggested looking for other ways to reflect the intent of the inventory, which he believes was to protect trees through the development process.

Iseman remained unconvinced. “How do you protect, respect or give meaning to the trees once they are candidate heritage trees and no longer heritage trees?” she queried. “What protection is there at that point?”

Larson pointed out that at least the 59 candidate heritage trees in the South Laguna public rights-of-way already require owners to obtain permits to alter or remove them following a 2002 Council decision to make the city responsible for their maintenance.

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