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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

Dark Day in Newport History

October 06, 2002|JAN D. VANDERSLOOT

As a 20-plus-year resident of Newport Beach, I can't remember a more naked abuse of power than the day the city government used the cloak of darkness to cut down 23 of 25 ficus trees on Balboa Peninsula's Main Street. On Sept. 18, the city showed a blatant disrespect for its citizens, its policies and ordinances as it rushed to cut down the trees before citizens could appeal a Superior Court decision to an appellate court. As it turned out, the appellate court issued a stay of the destruction at 11 a.m., but by that time the city had managed to cut down 23 trees--an average of a tree every 10 minutes.

In a stealth maneuver worthy of Desert Storm, the city mobilized its police force and staff during the predawn hours to cordon off the area. The city acted like a sleazy developer who takes advantage of the lag time between courts to ensure that the natural resource is gone.

I'm sure the general services director, the city manager, and the mayor are gloating over this subterfuge, but it stinks to high heaven. This was nothing to be proud of, and it speaks volumes about the city leadership's attitude toward its citizens.

The city was disrespectful of its citizens because we were negotiating to save the designated Special City Trees on the north side of the street, and enough of the trees on the south side to retain the arbor or canopy while removing the problem trees on that side. The Special City Trees were protected by the city policy because they were designated as landmark trees that could only be removed because of death, disease or the creation of a hazardous situation. Negotiations continued right up to the time the city took the precipitous action to remove all the trees.

On Sept. 13, the city offered to retain the 10 Special City Trees--something it should have done anyway under its existing tree policy--and just two of the 15 trees on the south side, clearly not enough to maintain the arbor or canopy on the ocean side of the street.

The Balboa Arbor Society--a private, nonprofit group--was evaluating this proposal and did not reject it, instead asking for one more week to continue the court challenge and poll members. There still would have been enough time for the city to remove the trees if we could not arrive at a settlement. The society asked the city to consider saving every other tree on the south side, but this was flatly rejected by the city, which adopted a take-it-or-leave-it negotiating stance.

Meanwhile the Monday court date loomed, and once the Superior Court decided in favor of the city on a technicality, the city pounced. Forget the citizens, forget the trees, forget the settlement discussions. Get the police out there, don't tell anyone, use deception to spread the false word that the trees would be removed next week, ignore the noise ordinance, start work before the courts opened, and get rid of the trees once and for all.

The rapidity of the tree removal Wednesday morning was astonishing and showed military precision. It showed that the city could remove the trees at any time along the way within a matter of hours, ultimately not making a whit of a difference in the timing of the Balboa Village Improvement Project, which will be continuing through June. Clearly the trees could have stayed until the process played out. A compromise was in the offing, and a win-win was possible.

Instead the city acted like Big Brother. It did not show respect, and it abused its power to bowl over citizen opposition. In the meantime, the Balboa Arbor Society was uncovering evidence that disproved the allegations of sewer blockage and property damage that were claimed as the reasons for removing the trees.

Sure, there were merchants with significant problems, and the trees that caused these problems could be removed or the roots pruned to eliminate the problems.

This was acknowledged by all who were involved in the discussions. The Balboa Arbor Society was also researching treatments that could have preserved the trees while minimizing the problems caused by the roots. The city could have used these solutions in other areas of the city as well to solve problems caused by tree root and infrastructure interactions.

These solutions are needed to solve future problems as the urban forest matures. We don't need to cut down mature trees that benefit air quality, water quality, aesthetics and the general ambience. We do need to find solutions, because trees and their roots continue to grow and need to be properly maintained to reduce liability, sewer blockage and property damage.

The city needs the help of its citizens to be engaged and cooperate in problem solving. If city leaders cannot work with citizens as shown by this ficus tree fiasco, then we need a change in leadership. City leaders come and go. The citizens stay.

*

Jan D. Vandersloot is vice president of the Balboa Arbor Society.

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