This endangered Torrey Pine leans on Long Branch Avenue in Ocean Beach.
The scene: Well meaning, trusting community leaders and citizens on one side, listening intently and the city of San Diego’s civil servants on the other side, at best misinforming, and at worst, deliberately deceiving the community in order to do something they think is necessary — kill a beautiful Torrey Pine tree.
The tree is in the 4600 block of Long Branch Avenue in Ocean Beach. The city insists the tree is a dangerous hazard and must be taken down because it is — hold on tight to something — leaning. That’s right, leaning. The tree is leaning toward the street. It has uplifted sections of the sidewalk and damaged a private retaining wall that is actually on city property.
The city is planning a sidewalk replacement bid letting for the spring, and this section of sidewalk is included and has been since August 30, 2007 according to the city’s street division. All of a sudden, after three years, the sidewalk is now a serious liability — the first argument. How odd.
Instead of thinking of creative ways to rebuild this sidewalk and save this tree, that is an endangered species, the city is thinking of creative ways to scare people into thinking the tree will fall over and must come out. Why does the city want it gone? Money. It would be easier to fix the sidewalk, and the city would not have to maintain the tree. Simple. Our urban landscape is being denuded because this city is broke.
Last week, the city’s urban forester, Drew Potocki, appeared before the Ocean Beach Planning Board (OBPB) to explain why this tree should be removed. He brought a document with him that was only distributed to the OBPB members; none were available to the public. And, members of the OBPB complained that they had only been given the document a few hours earlier.
The document was allegedly the professional opinions of several “certified arborists” confirming that the tree needed to come down. Mr. Potocki constantly referred to the tree as a hazard and a safety problem, and did everything he could to frighten everyone. After obtaining a copy of these opinions and reviewing them, I can only say “now that’s funny!”
The crux of the city’s alleged proof that the tree is falling over is their claim that there is evidence of recent earth upheaval at the site, evidenced by the uplifted sidewalk and the damaged retaining wall — the city’s second argument.
One of the “certified arborists” is the area manager for West Coast Arborists, the company that has the city contract to remove trees. The conflict of interest is so strong that it actually has an odor. The West Coast guy explained that the damage to the retaining wall and sidewalk show earth uplift. Hardly.
A growing tree root has lifted the sidewalk. The retaining wall is being pushed back toward the adjacent house by the same root and the wall has actually sunk, not uplifted. If there had been uplift on the sidewalk side, there should have been corresponding signs of the curb being pushed down on the opposite side, but there are none.
I have been in the San Diego construction industry since 1977 and am far more qualified to judge earth upheaval than any of the city’s “arborists,” and I can state with certainty there has been none.
The city’s third argument — odd that they have three arguments isn’t it? — is that the Municipal Code requires a certain height clearance for vegetations at the face of the curb and the tree is violating that provision. Mr. Potocki worries that a high-profile vehicle might hit the tree, and the city would be liable.
This tree trunk has a radius of about four feet, and the tree is very tall. Anyone who doesn’t see it and hits it with a truck should have their license lifted. Long Branch is a narrow beach street with street parking on both sides. No one could drive down the curb line even if they tried because of the parked cars. Drivers have to drive down the middle of the street, and the clearance there is fine.
Oh yeah, and Potocki worried that a truck hitting the tree might knock it down. I guarantee the upper portion of any high-profile truck would be no match for this tree.
The simple fact is this tree is healthy; no one, even the city, argues with that. Richard Agee, a local activist, paid two arborists out of his own pocket to look at the Torrey Pine, and they both said it was a healthy tree. Agee famously saved the palm trees along Santa Barbara Street in Point Loma, the ones that Mr. Potocki had in his sights, not because they were unhealthy and in danger of falling, but because a resident complained about falling fronds. The easiest solution to that was to cut down the trees, not maintain them.
Mr. Potocki mentioned that he had a list of more than 400 trees that had fallen down in recent years, and that this was a concern. When asked if he had a list of healthy Torrey Pines that had fallen over, he said he did not. But, he knew of some that had on the slopes of Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla. The operative word was “slopes” because trees often fall off eroding slopes. They fall because the ground under them falls away, not because they are unhealthy. The tree on Long Branch is not on a slope.
The city’s presentation was bereft of facts or expert analysis and was intended only to create an atmosphere of fear. We have a right to expect to be treated as reasoning adults, not a bunch of ignorant idiots who need the city to not only decide for us, but to then use any tactic available — short of the truth — to influence our decisions. I have seen too many of these performances.
I’ve lived here since 1977 and, while I recall stories of giant eucalyptus trees toppling over — notoriously weak root systems — I don’t recall a story about a healthy Torrey Pine toppling.
Tim Jones, who is a certified arborist from Green Horizons Landscape and Maintenance, and one of Mr. Potocki’s experts, says that tree is about 80 feet tall. And, the root systems on these trees are two and a half times their height. At 80 feet tall, the root system on this tree would be substantial. Fall over? Break maybe if you hit it with a tank! A tree rooted like that isn’t falling; it’s leaning.
This tree needs to live because we need our trees. There is no compelling reason to kill this one. We can live around the trees. Our zeal for organization and straight lines needs to allow for some deviations, some curves. Beyond that, this is a living thing, and cutting it down would be killing it just to make our lives a little easier.
Geoff Page lives in Point Loma.
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