The City of Santa Monica has reduced the number of ficus trees slated for removal as part of its controversial $8.2 million Second and Fourth Street Pedestrian and Streetscape Improvement Project from 54 to 30 trees.

Under the project, 23 ficus trees were initially identified as “diseased” — although they are now being called “structurally unstable” by the city — and were scheduled to be removed and converted to compost.

Another 31 were set to be removed and replanted elsewhere in the city — some in the project area and others in parks. That number has now been reduced to seven.

After surveying the underground utilities, the city has determined that “only seven trees are suitable candidates for a successful relocation,” said Santa Monica city manager Lamont Ewell.

The trees would be relocated to the Palisades Garden Walk Park site at the former RAND location, he said.

“The trees are expected to thrive there without the current need for aggressive root pruning and the move will allow their canopies to fully mature,” Ewell said.

In each of the spots where the 30 ficus trees are set to be removed along Second and Fourth Streets between Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, two ginkgo biloba trees are to be planted.

Approximately 100 ficus trees in the project area will remain untouched.

But even with the city reducing the number of trees up for removal and relocation, Treesavers — an activist group that organized to save the trees — adamantly disagrees with uprooting any of the ficus trees.

“They shouldn’t even be considering relocating any,” said local activist and Treesavers leader Jerry Rubin. “They shouldn’t relocate healthy trees for design or aesthetic purposes. It’s not a good idea. Why relocate a healthy tree? If the city thinks these seven trees are ‘good candidates’ for relocation, they should know that the trees declined the nomination.”

Treesavers has taken the city to court over the matter — first in October, when they were granted a temporary restraining order against the city, banning it from removing any ficus trees that are part of the streetscape improvement project and are of no danger to the public.

But Treesavers dropped that case when they filed for landmark status for the groups of ficus trees along Second and Fourth Streets, promising to go back to court if necessary to save the trees.

When the ficus trees were not granted landmark status by the Landmarks Commission, Treesavers went back to court.

On February 28th, Santa Monica attorney Tom Nitti — who is representing Treesavers pro bono — argued in court that the city did not follow proper procedures under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), but the judge sided with the city, saying that the 180-day statute of limitations was exceeded.

Then in early March, Nitti and Treesavers filed an appeal and attempted to obtain another temporary restraining order against the city.

They were successful in obtaining the temporary restraining order against the city, banning it from removing trees that are of no danger to the public.

Basically, the court reinstated the stay that had been granted to Treesavers last October.

Currently, the restraining order is in place while the Court of Appeal makes its decision.

“The city has filed a brief in the Court of Appeal and Treesavers has filed a reply to the city’s brief, so we’re just awaiting a decision from the Court of Appeal,” said Nitti.

The court will probably either hold a hearing, send the case back to trial court or decide in favor of the city, Nitti said.

Nitti says he’s not sure how long it will take for the court to make a decision, but he doesn’t expect it to be “long in coming.”

“Once we hear a decision from the Court of Appeal, we will proceed as planned to implement the project,” says Ewell, who is confident the city will prevail in court.

Treesavers hopes for a successful appeal, but their ultimate goal is just to save the trees.

“We’re going to do everything possible legally, politically and diplomatically to save these trees,” Rubin said.

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