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Some Are Left Pining for Old Trees

Buckled sidewalks led to decision to cut down 42 giants in Huntington Beach neighborhood. But they had their fans.

July 07, 2006|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

No Daryl Hannah lurked in the branches of these trees. And no Joan Baez warbled from above when the chain saws roared to life early Thursday to cut down 42 trees in Huntington Beach.

Although several residents on Brush Drive stood by with "Save our urban forest" signs, the closest thing to a standoff came when four children linked hands around one of the doomed trunks. But an officer coaxed three of the youngsters away with "junior police" stickers. And the fourth caved in after police summoned his grandmother.

"What's the problem?" she asked the boy.

"I don't want to move," he replied. "Get home right now!" she ordered.

Just as the recent celebrity drive to save South Los Angeles' urban farm, this effort would fail too.

The removal of 42 trees -- Brazilian pepper trees and carrotwoods -- resumed to make way for sidewalk and street repairs in this residential tract near Beach Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway.

The saga began 11 years ago when neighborhood residents petitioned the city to fix buckling sidewalks and bulging curbs caused by tree roots.

To have such repairs authorized, Huntington Beach requires signatures from 75% of a neighborhood's property owners. The Brush Drive request was signed by 94% of the area's 50 residents, said Bob Valeski, who spearheaded the effort. But by the time funding became available a decade later, some of the original backers had moved and others had changed their minds.

One of Brush Drive's new homeowners, Theresa Chaque, organized a petition to save the trees, collecting signatures from 64% of the neighborhood's residents.

In February, the City Council yielded to the new petition, the first of three flip-flops in the next 90 days.

It scaled back the project to spot-repairs of bumpy sidewalks and curbs.

Two months later, fearing a lawsuit if someone were injured tripping over disjointed concrete, the council reversed itself and decided to yank all the trees to install new sidewalks, curbs, pavement -- and younger trees with less disruptive roots. Total cost: $450,000.

But then the council again wavered, scheduling another vote on the project for May.

Meanwhile, supporters of the 1995 petition organized a sequel signature drive and apparently persuaded several pro-tree residents to switch sides.

The new tally showed 78% of Brush Drive residents now favored taking out the trees.

Faced with conflicting petitions, city officials toyed with the idea of polling the residents via certified mail.

Instead, the City Council decided in May to remove the trees after verifying that signatures on the third petition were valid.

But less than a week later, five of the signers had asked to be removed from the petition.

Too late, officials said, the deadline had passed.

Alfonso Aguilar, who just moved into the neighborhood, tried to withdraw his signature, saying that he was misled by petition organizers.

On Thursday, as the whine of chain saws and a wood chipper filled the air, Aguilar hugged the tree in front of his house before driving off to work. "It's kind of sad," he said.

With the smell of sawdust wafting through the neighborhood, pedestrians and passing motorists offered mixed opinions.

One woman said she wanted the city to fix her street next.

But others lamented the loss of shade.

Some of the doomed trees had been festooned with green ribbons and signs saying, "Please don't kill me."

Sandi Bandfield, visiting from Santa Cruz, said the mass removal would never have happened in her city. "You let trees uproot houses before you tear them down," she said.

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