Treesavers lost in court on February 28th, when the group attempted to get an injunction against the City of Santa Monica to protect 54 ficus trees slated for removal as part of the city’s streetscape improvement project, but members say their fight is far from over.

At Argonaut press time, attorney Tom Nitti, who is representing Treesavers pro bono, planned to head back to court Wednesday, March 5th, to try to get an emergency stay against the city to prevent the removal of ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets that are of no danger to the public — and to appeal the February 28th court decision.

“An appeal itself doesn’t help too much, because by the time the court makes a decision on the appeal, the trees will be gone,” says Nitti, who is based in Santa Monica. “So we’re asking for an emergency stay as well as an appeal.”

It was not yet known if a temporary stay had been granted against the city from removing ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets that are of no danger to the public.

On February 28th, Nitti 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.

“There’s a big argument over when it started,” Nitti said of the statute of limitations. “I say it started in August 2007 when the city contracted with the lumberjacks to cut the trees down. The city says it started in October 2005 when the city said trees are exempt from CEQA. My position is that the city’s statement that ‘Trees are exempt from CEQA’ is false and a false statement by the city should not start the statute of limitations.”

Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager for community relations, says, “The city conducted detailed community workshops and detailed environmental review in 1997 and again in 2005. And at all times, the city fully informed and engaged the public in the vision for Second and Fourth Street.”

Nitti says, “That’s all nonsense because the city told people falsely that street trees are exempt from CEQA.

“The city misled the people and now the city is saying, ‘It’s too late to do anything about it’ and I think that’s flat out unjust and I want to fight it out and try to get justice.”

If the court grants an emergency stay against the city banning it from removing ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets that are of no danger to the public, the trees will be saved — at least temporarily.

“The real big question is, will the court grant an emergency stay?” Nitti said.

Of the 54 ficus trees slated for removal on Second and Fourth Streets between Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, 23 were identified as “diseased” — although they are now being called “structurally unstable” by the city — and are to be converted to compost. The other 31 are to be removed and replanted elsewhere in the city.

In each of their spots, two ginkgo biloba trees are to be planted.

Ninety-nine ficus trees will remain untouched.

And although many of the ficus trees’ futures are unsure, Treesavers’ fight is far from over, said local activist and Treesavers’ leader Jerry Rubin.

“We’re never going to give up no matter what happens,” he says. “We’re trying everything legally, politically and diplomatically in hopes that no one will have to resort to peaceful tree defense — people risking arrest by chaining themselves to a tree, hugging a tree, climbing in a tree, things like that.”

Environmentalist John Quigley, a Treesavers member who has gotten national media attention by helping to save a tree called “Old Glory” in Santa Clarita, has helped to train many members of Treesavers in nonviolent tree defense.

“We do not want to be out there chaining ourselves to trees,” said Rubin. “That’s the last resort and we’re hoping it never has to happen. We’re law-abiding citizens — but these trees should be saved.”

Vernez says the city doesn’t have a plan for removing and relocating the trees yet.

“We’re being careful and logistical first,” Vernez said.

For example, of the 31 ficus trees planned for relocation, “We first are checking if their roots are rapped around utilities,” Vernez said. “It’s a careful, methodical process.”

Meanwhile, Treesavers is hoping for a temporary stay and successful appeal.

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