Compiled by Kamala Kirk

Judge halts Ballona Wetlands Tree removal pending court review

A Great Horned Owl’s nest in a Canary Island Date Palm tree, the same species of tree proposed to be cut down in another area of the ecological reserve.
Photo by Jonathan Coffin

On Feb. 11, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff granted a preliminary injunction to the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, halting the removal of multiple mature trees in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve.

The Land Trust filed suit on Nov. 30 alleging that plans by the Friends of Ballona Wetlands to cut down various palm and pine trees within the ecological reserve didn’t have a valid coastal development permit as required by the Coastal Act, and also that the project
was not categorically exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act.

The Court determined that the Land Trust had a strong enough case that, when considered along with the potential harm of permanently removing the trees at issue, warranted an injunction to preserve the trees until a full hearing on the matter can be held, which is scheduled for Nov. 5. The Land Trust was required to post a $10,000 bond to secure the injunction.

Nature photographer Jonathan Coffin provided a declaration and exhibits in support of the Land Trust’s request for an injunction, including photographs of a Great Horned Owl’s nest and a Barn Owl roosting in similar palm trees in different areas of the reserve. He cautioned against cutting down trees without carefully assessing how those trees are being used by native wildlife.

Although the Friends of Ballona Wetlands asserted that the trees didn’t provide ecological value, they didn’t provide copies of any bird surveys in their court filings. The Coastal Commission has at times highlighted the ecological value of non-native trees including Canary Island Date Trees.

“It is well established in the scientific literature that cutting down even non-native trees can have adverse impacts on native wildlife,” said Walter Lamb, the Land Trust’s president. “That is why it isn’t the policy of any natural resource management agency to cut trees down first and ask questions later.”

Lamb said that he hopes the parties will agree to seek a valid coastal development permit and that the additional analysis that will result from that process will provide a better sense of whether cutting these trees down would help or harm the ecological function of the site. He also said that his organization will keep an open mind when reviewing any future analysis of the project, but that it is important that the analysis be conducted.

“Hopefully, this case will address not only legal issues, but also facilitate discussion regarding the nuance of managing non-native species in nature,” Lamb said.

In its ruling, the Court expressed skepticism that coastal development permit from 1997, that made no reference to the removal of mature trees, authorized the removal of such trees in 2021. The Court also noted that it did not appear that any analysis was conducted to assess the potential cumulative impacts of nearby projects, as required by CEQA, but nonetheless determined that the Land Trust was less likely to prevail at trial on its CEQA claims.

Santa Monica receives over $5.5 million for affordable housing production

The California Department of Housing and Community Development has announced two significant awards to the City of Santa Monica for future affordable housing production.

The first is an award of $5 million from the California Local Housing trust Program (LHTF). The program provides a State match to qualifying local housing trust funds. The City was awarded the maximum amount in recognition of existing local trust funds, as well as the City’s financial commitments to affordable housing in the pipeline.

The second is an award of $547,516 from the Permanent Local Housing Allocation program for the current year and approximately $3.3 million over five years.

Both sources of funding will be combined with the City’s housing trust funds to facilitate three affordable housing developments currently in the pipeline, including the preservation of 40 affordable residences in the Pico neighborhood and the construction of new affordable housing for young adults and other people experiencing homelessness.

“This is significant and welcome support from the state that will spur the production and preservation of affordable housing,” said Andy Angle, director of the city’s Community Services Department. “The awards reflect Santa Monica’s commitment to affordable housing and will help preserve existing housing and bring more affordable residences to the community.”