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Council to Decide Fate of 4 Old Oaks

Roads: The trees are targeted for removal in project to make Tujunga intersection safer.

September 22, 2002|WENDY THERMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mighty oaks they are, old and silent. But they are on the verge of being toppled by the swift flow of progress.

In this case, progress means making room for cars.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council will decide whether to move forward with a $1-million road improvement project in Tujunga that will destroy four large old oaks and perhaps imperil the remaining 10 in a half-acre grove whose leafy canopy may have shaded settlers on horseback.

Oaks are protected by law in Los Angeles and many other cities. L.A.'s ordinance allows the trees to be removed if they interfere with road improvements.

The city has budgeted $935,000 to widen and realign the intersection of Honolulu Avenue, Tujunga Canyon Road and La Tuna Canyon Road, near the Foothill Freeway. The junction has a history of accidents, many involving motorists coming down hilly Tujunga Canyon Road too fast and failing to negotiate a curve past the oak trees, spinning out into the property of a homeowner who lives across the street from the grove.

Concerned that city engineers might not have tried hard enough to save the 14 oaks, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel put a two-week freeze on the project funds Sept. 10. She asked city engineers to detail what alternatives, such as using an adjacent right-of-way to bypass the trees, have been investigated.

"They are going to have to be very clear and explain this to me in writing," she said. "Safety is a top priority of mine. But removal of oak trees of this size and stature should be a last resort."

City engineers say that removing four trees to make the curve more gradual is the only way to improve safety along the stretch where Tujunga Canyon Road meets Honolulu. Plans also call for building retaining walls around some of the other oaks, which some experts say could kill the sensitive trees.

Project manager Masih Hashemi said every effort was made to avoid destroying trees. "To my knowledge, there are no alternatives," he said. "We didn't take this lightly at all."

Edwin Bowen, who has lived in a house at the intersection for 40 years, doesn't favor reworking the project to avoid uprooting the oak trees. His 1.5-acre property is a catch basin for vehicles coming too fast down the hill on Tujunga Canyon Road.

"We have lots of accidents at that corner," said the 71-year-old commercial contractor. "I think the widening is more important than a couple of trees."

City officials were unable to explain why there are no warning flashers or large signs to alert drivers to the curve as they come downhill on winding Tujunga Canyon Road, although oversize arrows are posted on curves going up the hill.

"I would agree that [warnings] could result in some reduction of accidents," said Rand Disko, a city engineer who helped design the project. A sober driver going the speed limit should have no trouble making the bend around the trees, he said. But the reality is that the spot has too many accidents, he said.

"The solution is to have a gradual enough turn so that the motorist can remain safely in their travel lane," Disko said.

From June 3, 2001, to June 11, 2002, 11 accidents at the intersection were recorded by the Los Angeles Police Department. Four were solo-car crashes, five were two-car collisions, one vehicle hit a bicycle, and one motorist hit a parked car.

Bowen said he believes the number of accidents is far higher, but many aren't reported. "We have one a week, I'd say."

City engineers said the roadbed can't be shifted to an unused right-of-way on Tujunga Canyon Road farther away from the oak grove, because doing so would not soften the curve.

The use of retaining walls within a few feet of most of the remaining tree trunks will probably damage their sensitive roots and could prove lethal, said Doug McCreary, a tree physiology expert with the University of California's hardwood management program.

Although the city will plant at least 10 oak saplings nearby as replacements for the four oaks being removed, McCreary said it's not the same as having old trees.

"It's really hard to replace the values associated with big oaks," he said. "They are tremendously important to wildlife and one of the richest habitats in the state. They're a very distinctive part of the landscape. I think they're emblematic of California to many people."

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