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Old Tree and New Growth

January 21, 2003

Judging from the number of crayoned tree portraits in circulation, every schoolchild in Southern California knows that an oak dubbed Old Glory was home to John Quigley from November until 11 days ago, when county workers with a court order and a ladder truck politely plucked him down. Quigley had vowed to stay in the tree until county officials agreed not to fell it to widen a road. Old Glory will instead be moved, and that probably will kill it.

But then, this was never really about the tree, magnificent as it is. Old Glory stands -- for now -- just outside Santa Clarita, a collection of old farming towns northwest of Los Angeles that combined to form one of the fastest-growing 'burbs in California. That frantic expansion alarms those who settled there to get away from congested Los Angeles. The stand for the tree was a stand against more development, especially the proposed and much-protested 21,000-home Newhall Ranch. Outside Santa Clarita, Old Glory became a symbol of everything Southern California has lost on its journey from oak grasslands to subdivisions named South Oaks.

The easy villains are developers and politicians, in this case John Laing Homes, which agreed to widen the road as the price of doing business with Los Angeles County, and Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area. Antonovich points out that county engineers routed the expansion the way they did to save 14 of 15 oaks and is miffed at not getting credit for saving the others or for the 120 that have been left to form a park -- not to mention his work on the 1982 oak tree preservation ordinance that requires going to such lengths.

Point taken. But points must be detracted for the supervisor's reliance on the county's 1940 master plan to defend widening the road in the first place, without considering that a six-decade-old plan may no longer match what residents want in their fast-developing valley.

Subdivisions can't keep overgrowing open space forever. Politicians need to understand that people are at least as fond of oaks and wild buckwheat as they are of cul-de-sacs and mini-malls. But regular folks need to do some rethinking of their own role in sprawl. Those who see a single-family home with a yard as their birthright can hardly shut the gate on others who follow them to the remaining canyons and hilltops.

The alternative is building apartments in empty or blighted lots in the city core. But residents of established neighborhoods resist infill, then gripe about spending public money to develop the one area that welcomes it: downtown Los Angeles.

Heroes and villains focus attention, and for the 71 days Quigley perched in Old Glory's branches, people saw this issue in black and white. If that battle-scarred oak can now lead the region into a more shaded debate about growth, it will have accomplished much more.

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