After a lengthy discussion between the Santa Monica City Council and city forester Walt Warriner about a reassessment of 202 of the city’s carob trees at a council meeting in late November, assistant city manager Gordon Anderson pulled the item for consideration at a later date.
Warriner had recommended to the City Council the removal of 189 carob trees as a result of a “high risk” for failure and the removal of 13 carob trees because of “very poor viability” in mid-December, with replacement trees to be planted in late January and early February.
He also reported on the feasibility of a phased removal program, which he discouraged, before the item was continued to a later meeting by Anderson.
Over half a dozen residents were against the immediate removal of the 202 carob trees and voiced their opinions at City Hall.
Attorney Susan Hartley, who is the chair of the Santa Monica Airport Commission, was one of them. She noted that the staff report recommending the removal and replacement of the carob trees was “overladen with risk liability.”
Santa Monica resident Brian Varnum, who lives on 12th Street — where a number of carob trees have been recommended for removal — pointed out, “We live in a risk-filled world and to try to execute against that would deprive us of any street trees.”
Mark Armour, a board member of North of Montana Association (NOMA), said the issue frustrated him.
“The city basically came into our neighborhoods earlier this year and said ‘We have a liability problem; tree limbs are falling and we need to cut down 300 trees.'”
He continued, “I started thinking, a liability problem, well, how does the city deal with our other liability issues?
“You know, when the Farmers Market tragedy happened, did we shut down the Farmers Market? Apparently, our city busses have a problem avoiding pedestrians. Did we get rid of our city bus system?
“When we had the tragedy at our public schools and some of our children got molested, did we fire all the teachers? Look, I’m no tree expert. Trees are going to fall. Trees are going to die. We need to have a policy that manages our tree canopy appropriate to the risk.”
The carob tree issue came to light last year after the city — which has over 33,000 trees in its canopy — saw dozens of carob limb and tree failures over the past few years, Warriner said.
Since fiscal year 2001-02, there have been close to 90 carob tree failures in Santa Monica.
As a result of those failures, and as part of the Community Forest Renewal Program, a study was conducted starting in October last year with HortScience — an independent consulting arborist — of mature carob trees throughout the city to determine their health, viability and any risk that could be associated with their declining condition.
The study focused on 630 mature and over-mature carob trees that showed signs of decline and/or a risk potential that could present a liability implication for the city, Warriner said.
The results indicated that 300 of the trees were “high risk” and required removal and found that 98 posed a “significant risk of failure.” Those 98 trees were removed earlier this year. The other 330 carob trees were recommended for specialized pruning.
In May, Warriner presented the findings of the study to both the community and the City Council.
In response to community concern, the city vowed to reassess the carob trees.
That same month, the City Council also directed city staff to determine the feasibility of phasing the carob tree removals over a period of time, which Warriner believed was too risky, when the item was pulled.
“I think that perhaps we’ve had a good, rich discussion thus far tonight, but we would like to pull this item for a later discussion at a different time,” Anderson said. “We have heard some discussion that you may want staff to start considering some different level of risk that the city might want to take and we will need some evaluation of that.”
He also noted that city manager Lament Ewell, who was not present, “is certainly going to want to weigh in on that.”
The council seemed concerned about how one determines a tree’s “risk rating” — and what risk is a reasonable one for the city to take versus what is not.
For example, “How do you really know a tree is going to fail?” asked City Councilman Bob Holbrook.
The trees are rated on a numerical scale based on various components, including the tree’s overall health, site conditions and characteristics.
The scale goes from one to 12, which is the highest risk rating.
Ninety-eight carob trees — all with risk ratings of ten or higher — were removed earlier this year as a result of their “high risk” rating.
Warriner recommends removing all carob trees that have a risk rating of eight or higher.
“In my professional opinion, a carob tree that has a risk rating of eight or above is too risky a tree to keep in place,” he said.
But City Councilman Kevin McKeown said, “It seems to me, as long as we focus solely on the scale, we’re dead in the water.
“This hinges, to my mind, on two four-letter words — risk and time. The numerical scale by itself is of limited use to us.
“It seems to me, combining the scale with judgment and common sense might bring us to some place more useful.”
City Councilman Ken Genser added, “I really think it’s wise to go back and address these concerns and think about it a bit more.”
The item will come back before the City Council with more information from city staff based on the council’s discussion, but exactly when is uncertain.