Friday May 16 was a beautiful warm day in Santa Monica, and a day that may live in infamy in the hearts of many tree-lovers. It was the day that City workers took out 23 ficus trees on 2nd and 4th Streets in the downtown business area.
The action came two days after a California appellate court ruling that dismissed the lawsuit against the City by the Treesavers activist group. Treesavers had charged that the City violated CEQA procedure by going ahead with the plan to remove/relocate the ficus trees without an Environmental Impact Record (EIR). But the judge ruled that Treesavers had not filed the suit within the required time period.
City Manager P. Lamont Ewell at the time of that ruling issued a statement that he was “pleased that the Courts have upheld the City’s position and that we may now move forward to enhance these streets and protect public safety. The City intends to proceed with the removal of 23 trees that are structurally unstable, and implement the other improvements.”
The City’s action began around 6a.m. Friday. Bob Wolff, a member of Treesavers, said he was returning from the gym he goes to when he saw trees being taken down on 4th Street. He took photos of the stumps, and in his words: “There were no signs of decay on any of them.”
A statement issued by City Forester Walt Warriner said that none of the trees removed “had any root base,” a fact that was “confirmed when [the trees] were taken down.”
By 11:45a.m. with the work almost over, members of Treesavers gathered in front of the NRDC building on 2nd Street for a press conference.
Jerry Rubin of Treesavers held a piece of wood from a felled tree as he told the media, said “I am very sad, but I am also very angry” at the City’s action. He believed that the City and Treesavers could still negotiate a “win-win” solution for saving seven more trees that the City plans to relocate.
Nearby stood other activists, holding up signs, wearing green, and in some cases, crying.
Joel Reynolds, chief attorney for NRDC, said, “We’re very sorry to lose trees by this method,” adding that trees offer shade, sanctuary, and purification of the air. He agreed with Rubin’s insistence that a Tree Commission is needed in Santa Monica.
While citizens reacted with emotion, City officials kept to pragmatic statements. From the City Manager’s office came a memo stating: “After we received the Court decision in favor of the City, we moved expeditiously in an attempt to make up for seven months of lost time. This has increased the cost of the project by over $100,000. We also felt it important to carry this work out as early as possible to minimize the impact to the public and businesses.”
Kevin McKeown, the only City Council member to support saving the trees, reacted to Ewell’s statement: “From the start, I opposed the plan to remove healthy trees with public money. Anyone visiting our downtown today can see that the massive public outcry against cutting down our trees was simply ignored. I’m disappointed in the City’s action, as I know many Santa Monicans are.”
Representatives from the City Attorney’s office and the Bayside District were unavailable for comment.
Late in the day, Treesaver members gathered on the lawn outside City Hall. They were still sad, but Rubin reminded them that they must not give up.
He said that the fight must go on to work with the City on preventing relocation of seven remaining ficus trees, as well as preserving the City’s carob trees and the rest of the urban forest.
The issue of the formation of a Tree Commission is on the June 24 Council agenda. “Everything you say – as the leaders – is going to have an affect on others,” said Rubin. “Better to get angry than dejected.”