Village Matters

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Take Your Photos Now

By Ann Christoph
By Ann Christoph

The pepper tree in front of City Hall will be cut down to a 12-foot height next week, city public works director, Shohreh Dupuis announced at Tuesday’s council meeting. Don’t say no one told you this was going to happen. Now is the time to get one last look and one last photo of this majestic heritage tree.

It was planted in 1881 by George Rogers and his daughter Elisabeth Sarah Rogers, then 6-years-old, in front of the board and batten two-room house that Rogers had just built.  For $1,000 he had purchased 155.5 acres of land that today is downtown Laguna and Temple Hills and he needed a place for the family to live. To get the materials to build the house he had to drive a team of horses and wagon to Anaheim landing where lumber from Oregon was available. His niece, Beryl Wilson Viebeck, describes this and how the early Laguna homesteaders lived in her oral history, “Family Life in Early Orange County,” recorded by Eileen DeCair in 1995.

Later George’s father Henry thought his son needed more space for the family’s eight children. So Henry put a two-story house he had built on Temple Hills up on skids and wagon wheels and with horses pulled it down so that it could be added to the ranch house. That put-together house is shown in Roy Ropp’s painting featuring the pepper tree as it looked in 1926. This painting can still be seen today at City Hall.

Later the Woman’s Club rented and then bought the ranch house. When Laguna Beach wanted to build the city hall in the 1950s, the Woman’s Club sold the ranch house property to the city on the condition that the pepper tree be preserved. And it has been for all these years.

This current crisis with the pepper tree has come about because of the City Council’s good intentions to conserve water. All that lawn out in front was giving an inappropriate message during the drought, they thought. So they hired Bob Borthwick, landscape architect, to explore options for plantings that would require less irrigation. More good intentions. Borthwick was so concerned about the health of the pepper tree that he requested an arborist report to answer the question, “If we remove the lawn and reduce the watering, will that harm the pepper tree?” After all, the tree has been living with this condition and lawn-watering regime all these years. Well, he got a very unexpected answer from the arborist: forget about the watering question, the pepper is not structurally sound.

As a result of that diagnosis, we have had a series of council meetings agonizing over what is to be done. At first it was remove the tree and its stump entirely and plant a new large pepper in its place. Gradually the idea of keeping the stump has been expanded to remove most of the large branches to a height of 12 feet. We are going to wait to see how that goes before deciding where or if we will plant a new pepper tree.

It’s sad that the tree’s location right at the entrance to city hall is what has doomed it to this chopped-off fate. If it had been located in the middle of a park it could have been fenced off to protect the public from possible falling limbs and lived on to an even older age. Still, fencing off the area around the tree (with a more elegant fence than the present plastic one) and asking the public to get to the front door of city hall via the two side entrances doesn’t seem like it is asking too much in order to keep the tree with its complete beauty for as long as possible. But no one else agreed with that suggestion, or the option to examine structural remediation systems.

Go this weekend, appreciate the beauty and the history, take your last photographs, and hope that your grandchildren will one day see a tree that has grown anew from the remaining trunk.

Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former council member.


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