A better name for Thousand Oaks might be "15,500 Oaks or Thereabouts," judging from a tree census being taken as part of the city's ambitious plan to preserve its urban forest.
In fact, if numbers of non-native trees were what counted, then Sycamore City or Pineville might suit it as a name just as well.
But Thousand Oaks is having its trees counted as part of an effort to make sure that they last for generations--not to rename the city. The census is just one aspect of an unusually detailed tree preservation and maintenance plan that experts say will thrust Thousand Oaks into the forefront of a resurgent urban forestry movement.
The city commissioned the five-volume study by a team of landscape architects in January for $100,000. When the study is finished in October in time for Thousand Oaks' 25th anniversary, residents will be able to use a computer at City Hall to find out the species of trees most likely to flourish in their neighborhoods.
500 Building Permits
Developers will find it more difficult to get the 500 building permits available each year under the city's growth-control law unless they plant plenty of trees and give them room to grow. Thousand Oaks will also enact stiff tree-protection ordinances outlined in the plan to reduce tree sabotage and removal of city-owned trees prompted by homeowner complaints of roots buckling sidewalks.
Other cities, including Los Angeles, have large landscaping crews to take care of trees on public land, but "there aren't a lot of places like Thousand Oaks that have good plans to keep their forests thriving in the concrete jungle," said Gary A. Moll, editor of a bimonthly newsletter published by the Washington-based American Forestry Assn., a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the health of the nation's forests.
Only 15% of American cities have formal plans to manage their "urban forests," as trees planted in median strips, parks and along streets have collectively come to be known, Moll said.
However, increasing awareness of the role of trees as a counter to a possible global warming trend is prompting new interest in the urban forestry movement, which first blossomed in the Midwest in the 1960s and withered in the late 1970s, Moll said. Trees soak up carbon dioxide, which some researchers say is causing a "greenhouse effect," and convert it to oxygen.
For instance, the Los Angeles City Council earlier this month appropriated $500,000 for a computerized tree inventory, the first step toward better management of the 680,000 trees on public land, said Bob Kennedy, street tree supervisor for the Los Angeles Department of Public Works. Like Thousand Oaks', the inventory will attempt to record the location, type, condition and maintenance history of every city-owned tree.
"It's very tough to put together a plan because it requires a whole lot of cooperation among different city fiefdoms, like the parks department, planning and public works," said Andy Litkis, executive director of TreePeople, a nonprofit conservation organization based on Mulholland Drive at Coldwater Canyon Avenue. "I have to congratulate Thousand Oaks."
But officials of Thousand Oaks, which has about 200,000 trees, said they didn't start out with lofty ideals, such as cooling global temperatures.
"One of the selling points of this forestry master plan is definitely to reduce the city's liability" in civil lawsuits filed by people who trip and fall on sidewalks cracked by tree roots, said Shawn M. Mason, Thousand Oaks' assistant city attorney. The city intends to establish a record of taking all possible precautions to prevent such accidents, he said.
Only about five lawsuits have been filed in the past two years, Mason said, enough to cause concern in this eastern Ventura County city of about 108,000 on the border of Los Angeles County. The city has spent about $725,000 during the same period to repair cracked sidewalks caused by the growth of trees planted by developers two decades ago.
The plan was also spurred by calls from about 25 residents a month requesting the removal of trees, said Joe Bravo, the city's landscape supervisor.
"Most of these people say the trees are a safety hazard, when a lot of them just want to re-landscape and the trees don't fit their motif," Bravo said. "Sometimes if we won't remove the trees, they'll drill holes in them or pour gas on them to cause them to die."
Tree sabotage is not unique to Thousand Oaks, landscapers say. In Santa Barbara, city crews stopped planting large trees in Shoreline Park because they were systematically destroyed by citizens angry over obstruction of their ocean views, said Billy Goodnick, a consultant with the San Francisco firm of Wolfe Mason Associates, which is drafting the Thousand Oaks plan.
Thousand Oaks officials hope to counter the destruction of trees by measures such as enacting tough ordinances prohibiting their removal without special permits and fining residents thousands of dollars for violations. They will also plant trees, such as liquid amber or sycamores, whose root systems are less likely to cause safety problems. Another alternative, they said, is to give the roots more room by narrowing the sidewalks where they pass trees, although enough room must be left for residents, especially the disabled.
Since April, an urban forestry committee made up of neighborhood activists, schools and parks officials, landscape architects and business leaders has been overseeing the study.
This story previously appeared in the Times' Valley section.