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County Stands Firm on Cutting Down Tree

Antonovich says Santa Clarita road needs widening. Talks to save oak occur without him.

November 18, 2002|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County officials have not changed their minds about the need to cut down a 400-year-old oak tree in Santa Clarita despite meetings over the weekend between environmentalists and a developer trying to come up with a way to save the tree.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the Santa Clarita Valley, maintains that the tree must be cut down to allow the widening of Pico Canyon Road, spokesman Tony Bell said Sunday. The road would lead to the proposed Newhall Ranch subdivision and its 21,600 homes.

"If there's going to be development, [the residents] will need roads," Bell said. "To ensure public safety and to mitigate traffic congestion, this action must be taken."

County officials have told developer John Laing Homes, which is building a nearby subdivision, that it must cut down the tree to widen the road from two to four lanes.

On Saturday, a Laing representative met with the environmentalists who had recruited Pacific Palisades resident John Quigley to climb into the tree earlier this month -- a move that at least temporarily has saved the tree and generated a public relations windfall for the valley's anti-sprawl forces.

Environmentalists said they were unable to contact Antonovich to invite him to the meeting. Laing officials could not be reached for comment.

Quigley, who was spending his 14th day in the tree Sunday, said the negotiations with the developer were positive but "pointless unless we have the county at the table."

Though he looked like he could use a bath, the 42-year-old reiterated his determination to stay until the tree was saved -- even though he could miss a crucial game in his amateur basketball league Tuesday.

"I'm holding tight," he said. "I feel like we have a real shot at a solution."

Other supporters seemed upbeat Sunday as they gathered near the chain-link fence that developers had erected around the tree Thursday night. Weekend motorcyclists and families in SUVs motored by to cheer on the activists, and children passed donation jars. When a Native American wasn't beating a tom-tom, folk singer Fred Starner was serenading families with an original composition praising the man whose "body protects the tree."

Santa Monica resident Sheila Laffey, who has made a number of environmental documentaries, skipped a meditation session to bring her film crew to shoot footage.

Quigley demonstrated one of the reasons why he has become popular even in this conservative neighborhood when Laffey asked his opinions on President Bush's environmental record.

He paused, then garnered applause when he shouted, "I'm gonna keep the focus on this tree."

Lynne Plambeck, president of the environmental group Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, would not discuss many details of the three-hour meeting with the Laing representatives.

But, she said, Laing made it clear that it wants to keep trying to save the tree.

"John Laing Homes wants to solve this issue in a nonconfrontational, negotiated settlement," Plambeck said. "But the big problem is the person who can stop this was not present at the table -- Antonovich. As long as he says to cut down the oak and doesn't want to look at other options, it's hard to see how we can make any progress."

Ideally, Plambeck said, she would like to see the road stay at two lanes, though she would support efforts to build the road around the tree.

Public works spokesman Ken Pellman said those options are not feasible. Pico Canyon Road will eventually connect to California 126 to the north, and with the valley's rapid growth, Pellman said, it needs to have four lanes for the traffic. He added that a road that wide cannot be built around the tree because the canyon is too narrow.

Quigley talked about some of his challenges since pitching camp in the tree. Early on, he worried that a gunshot might have been fired by pranksters trying to scare him. Another night, kids threw eggs. And there was the rainstorm that had the branches swaying three to four feet.

But eventually, he said, any acts of opposition were overtaken by acts of generosity and camaraderie.

Saturday night was particularly pleasant for Quigley because his girlfriend, Susan Cox, had climbed up to spend the night with him.

Cox, a 36-year-old environmental consultant from Venice, had to find a baby-sitter for her two children before she could hoist herself into the tree for the night.

It was a cold night, she said, but worth it.

"He's one of my heroes," she said.

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