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Out on a Limb : Mistakes Are Forcing Cities to Cut Down Many Trees in Their Prime


Armed with a chain saw, shredding machine and death warrant, a Ventura city work crew showed up at the Stoults' house recently and turned the curbside ficus tree into sawdust 'n' chips.

The towering tree was removed to free the sewer line from pythonesque roots that had persisted in backing up the Stoults' plumbing, even after being assaulted by $2,200 worth of Roto-Rooting.

Looking out their living-room window when the demolition was finished, Paul and Betty Stoult were saddened to see a hole in the view. The city-owned tree--planted by the Public Works Department about 25 years ago--was a stately specimen and one of the main reasons that the retired couple bought the house in April.

Nobody ever told them that root problems had caused the demise of similar trees up and down the street, they said. But while Paul is philosophical about the loss of his neighborhood's urban forest--calling it "one of those unlucky things that happen between a sewer and a tree," Betty is alarmed.

"If they take all the beautiful trees down, this neighborhood will be a mess," said Betty, 73. "Why couldn't they have planted a tree without big roots?"

They did. It's just that trees have this annoying habit of growing .

Once planted in the ground, a sapling that began life in a five-gallon container will develop a root system that mirrors its branch structure. The Stoults' tree, an Indian laurel, had a 40-foot-wide crown and flying-buttress roots that extended far into the earth. It should have been given plenty of space, but the city stuck it in the four-foot parkway between the front curb and the sidewalk, directly above the Stoults' sewer line, a mistake that inevitably doomed the tree and cost the Stoults their curb appeal, not to mention $2,200.

"Why'd they plant a tree like that over a sewer in the first place?" Betty Stoult wondered.

Why, indeed?

It wouldn't be going out on a limb to say that every city in the county has had a knack "for putting ridiculous trees in ridiculous places," said Jim Downer, a horticulturist at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Ventura.

Over the past half-century, thousands of city-planted trees have been cut down in their prime because they became intrusive, bothersome or a potential insurance liability, experts say. In Thousand Oaks, scores of Monterey pines that could not handle the arid climate were weakened by disease, attacked by pine bark beetles and taken out by the city. Simi Valley had to whack hundreds of ash trees because they damaged sidewalks. In Ventura, dozens of Indian laurels have been removed, mostly because of sewer problems.

The mistakes made 20 or 30 years ago are costing us now. Aside from affecting the resale value of a house, the removal of a large tree also depletes city coffers. The job can cost a city as much as $1,000 per tree, not counting sidewalk repair, said Dan Condon, city arborist in Santa Barbara.

Poor planning long ago is also causing cities to spend extra money today to keep problem trees from growing out of control or becoming dangerous. A city spends about $200 to prune a large tree, Condon said.

In Port Hueneme, the ubiquitous coral tree has grown into a maintenance nightmare. Camarillo, Oxnard and Santa Paula, like Ventura, are having problems with Indian laurels needing an inordinate amount of attention to prevent them from clogging sewers, buckling sidewalks and overrunning neighborhoods.

To avoid destroying a tree, city crews--along with private companies--sometimes sever main roots to save a sidewalk, or they might top an unruly crown. But radical pruning mutilates a tree and often leads to its premature death, horticulturists say.

Problem trees, it seems, can be found throughout the region.

"There's hardly a tree species in Southern California that hasn't been removed for heaving walks or causing problems with sewer lines," said Alden Kelley, a Fullerton arborist who champions the cause of threatened trees.

Like many residents, the trees that populate our streets and medians are probably from somewhere else. When the first Europeans journeyed across the county a few centuries ago, they saw a landscape blanketed by coastal and valley live oak--the Conejo Valley was a solid oak woodland--as well as sycamore and alder, but they didn't see Indian laurel, palm, eucalyptus, Monterey pine, pepper, coral, ash or any of the dozens of other foreign species now growing in our soil.

Ranching took a toll on native trees earlier this century--untold numbers were removed to open up land for cattle grazing--and thousands of oaks and sycamores were intentionally destroyed after World War II to make room for developments during the housing boom. In their place, cities planted fast-growing imports to fill in the barren scenery and provide homeowners with immediate gratification. Fed by garden sprinklers, a tree such as a eucalyptus could double in size in a year, creating a pleasing look but a potential hazard.

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